Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley had just returned home to New Orleans, still jet-lagged after a month in Spain where he performed in Wagner's Siegfried, when his phone began buzzing with a news alert: A plane was missing from Barcelona. It took Grimsley a moment for it to register. "I started thinking: 'Wait a minute – today's the day that a lot of my friends from Barcelona are going to be travelling back to Germany.'"
After a series of frantic back-and-forth text messages among those involved in the production at Barcelona's Gran Teatro Liceu, the terrible news was announced: two Siegfried cast members, Oleg Bryjak and Maria Radner, were on the flight; Radner was travelling with her husband and baby.
"That was devastating," Grimsley recalled in a recent interview in Vancouver. "And it's just senseless. It's senseless any time a plane goes down, but when it's on purpose …" he trails off. Even before this disaster, he says, he thought about the potential for a crash every time he got on a plane – which, as an opera singer, he does a lot. "It's our nightmare."
Less than a week after the March 24 Germanwings tragedy, Grimsley and his wife, mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee, travelled to Vancouver to prepare for Vancouver Opera's production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, in which they co-star as the demon barber and Mrs. Lovett.
"At first, it was a little difficult to get my head sort of completely here," says Grimsley, during a break in rehearsals. "But in short order, because we have a job to do … I got to the place where I think the best way to honour them is to continue to do what we do. And to not forget how special we all are. And I won't take for granted saying goodbye and hopefully seeing somebody the next time."
Sweeney Todd, which opens Saturday, has been a good project for difficult circumstances: It has been a while since Grimsley and Bybee have worked on something together that is new for both of them. They love the material. And they're working with Kim Collier, a Siminovitch Prize-winning theatre director admired for her creativity, innovation and thoughtful vitality.
"These guys are real team players – they're really generous," says Collier, who is directing her first production for Vancouver Opera (she was assistant director on Fidelio in 2008 and Carmen in 2009).
"They're super-creative and I find them both absolutely open and attentive to the whole psychology of the character, where the drama is, the shift, what's the subtext of that moment, what's going on here," Collier says. "I was really thrilled to meet them both because of their generosity in the rehearsal room, their respect for the process and their ability to be strong working actors as well as singers."
Both Grimsley and Bybee, who met in a production of Carmen for Houston Grand Opera's touring arm – took unconventional paths to opera.
Grimsley, 58, grew up in New Orleans and describes himself as having come from "a very poor background." His father was in the navy and there wasn't a lot of money, so he and his brother lived with their grandmother in a large, busy household with extended family. "It was very loud," he recalls. "No one ever spoke in a normal tone of voice to each other. So it was good training for what I'm doing."
He grew up listening to crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Arabic music (his maternal ancestry is Lebanese) and jazz and blues, which he heard around town. He learned to play trumpet in Grade 6 and landed a spot in the marching band. He later joined the drama club; during his second-last year in high school, the local opera company called the school looking for kids who wanted to "make 10 bucks and be in an opera." Grimsley volunteered – and appeared in an opera (Fromental Halévy's La Juive) before he actually sat in an audience and watched one.
Bybee, 58, tells a similar story. Growing up in western Texas, she listened to a lot of country music. If the Metropolitan Opera broadcast came on the radio on Saturday afternoons, it was a race in her household to see who could get to it first to turn it off. She didn't see her first opera, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, until she was in university. And she was in it.
"I just auditioned for the choir at school and the whole faculty happened to be there and they said: 'Oh my gosh, you have to study voice – you need to,'" she says. "I'd never seen an opera."
Both Grimsley and Bybee have had exciting careers – and their 23-year-old daughter, Emma Grimsley, is also an opera singer (who last month appeared in a production of Sweeney Todd in Eugene, Ore.). She learned early on, while travelling with her parents, that when you work in opera, you quickly form strong bonds with the rest of the cast and creative team.
During an interview, the couple – warm, friendly, candid and funny but also very serious about their craft – talk about how all those goodbyes affected their daughter when she was young, and how that last goodbye is affecting them now, with the loss of Radner and Bryjak.
"We spent a month together. I didn't know Maria or Oleg prior to going to Barcelona," says Grimsley, who played the Wanderer in Siegfried. "But the nature of what we do is that we open up very fast to our cast mates and we get to know them. We have to trust each other on stage. And we all understand each other, so you know there is this … bond that happens for a cast."
In Barcelona, Bryjak played Alberich and Radner sang Erda; she was supposed to appear in the Canadian Opera Company's Siegfried in Toronto next year to sing the same role. "She was so open, so warm, so generous and talked about her baby and her husband. And Oleg was a fabulous singer and performer and so invested in what he did and I so respected him," Grimley says.
"After [the crash], I kept thinking about saying good-bye to both of them," he continues. "It's horribly sad and I do have moments where I stop and remember, and it just seems so present to me, the time that I did spend with them. And thinking about the last time I did see them and hug them and thank them. … I did call them my friends. They are and were my friends."
Vancouver Opera's Sweeney Todd is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre April 25-May 3.