Minnesota Opera: The couple behind 'Macbeth'

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 20, 2014 - 2:29 PM

Brenda Harris and Greer Grimsley portray the Macbeths in Verdi’s version of the classic story, opening Saturday at the Ordway.

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Brenda Harris and Greer Grimsley star as Lady Macbeth and Macbeth at the Minnesota Opera 2014 (c) Calabay Productions

The question did not demand a definitive and correct answer. It was more intended as a chance for Brenda Harris and Greer Grimsley to muse on the characters they portray in “Macbeth,” the Verdi opera that opens Saturday at Minnesota Opera. Which is the more significant of the two roles, Macbeth or Lady Macbeth?

“She is incredibly motivated to action and free of her conscience,” Harris said, taking the first stab.

Indeed, the woman behind the throne is the instigator, the character who “has the guts for both of us,” Harris said. Without her encouraging Macbeth to “screw his courage to the sticking place,” we might have a very different story than the one Shakespeare wrote.

Bass-baritone Grimsley made his case for the tragic Thane of Cawdor: “Seeing the distance that Macbeth has to go, from honorable warrior to murderer, is significant,” Grimsley said. “He does it despite his conscience, and that makes for interesting stuff for him.”

Talk about a power couple. He’s a guy who spends his life in constant danger on the battlefield but when he gets home and it’s time to stick a shiv into his rival, he loses his nerve. She lacks agency in a patriarchal society so she bullies her old man to seize the day and make certain those weird and opaque prophecies from the witches come true. With her pluck and his steel, the sky’s the limit — if it weren’t for those pesky ghosts of the people he’s slain and the vengeful son of the murdered king.

Harris and Grimsley are familiar with this happy twosome, having sung the roles together in a 2010 production at Opera Lyra Ottawa. Harris has performed Lady Macbeth several times over the past few years. The opera itself is starting to get more performances, but it is less popular than others in the Verdi canon.

“People consider these to be voice-wrecker roles,” Harris said. “You need to have people who can sing it, people who are confident enough in their voices to handle it.”

“Macbeth” came early in Verdi’s career, even though Grimsley said it feels like the work of an older composer.

“He gets more daring in his chord progressions, and his writing for the voice feels more settled, like the composer that he would become,” he said.

Premiered in 1847, the opera was reworked several times. Verdi wrote a significant addition to the ending. That later version did not have its U.S. debut until 1941. The Metropolitan Opera finally staged it in 1959. The Minnesota Opera brought in a production from New Zealand in 2000.

Familiar faces

Harris has become almost a regular at Minnesota Opera. Last season, she sang in Verdi’s “Nabucco.” She was in “Mary Stuart” and “Roberto Devereux,” two legs of Donizetti’s Tudor triology. After “Macbeth,” Harris will turn right around and get ready for the Dominick Argento opera “The Dream of Valentino,” which opens March 1. “I think I get one day off,” she said.

Grimsley was here for “The Flying Dutchman” in 2003 and “Tosca” in 1998. Critic Michael Anthony, writing about “Dutchman,” called Grimsley a “compelling presence” with a powerfully “resonant bass-baritone.” Anthony also commented on the aura that Grimsley gives off — a menacing visage best fit for a villain. And he has become a popular villain, with Mephistopheles in “Faust,” Don Pizarro in “Fidelio” and Scarpia in “Tosca.”

“These guys I play, I approach it from the point of view that they justify their actions,” Grimsley said. “They say they have to kill people for the good of the country. Most aberrant behavior is fear-based, and it causes people to do things to maintain their power.

“It’s said absolute power corrupts, but as John Steinbeck said, it’s the fear of losing that power that is corrupting.”

Which brings us back to “Macbeth.” Asked whether he puts the role into the bad-guy category, or the misunderstood cad driven by forces outside himself, Grimsley notes that “the act of murdering your king and being so willing to do it” kind of settles his villainy.

Harris accepts the villainy of her role, too, but she believes the character’s realization that she has a conscience becomes her fatal undoing.

“She moves like a shark, consciously suppressing any remorse,” Harris said. “Finally, her subconscious explodes.”

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  • Greer Grimsley and Brenda Harris squared off once before in “Macbeth,” in 2010 at Opera Lyra Ottawa.

  • MACBETH

    What: By Verdi, based on the Shakespeare play. Staged by Joel Ivany for Minnesota Opera.

    Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

    When: Opens 7:30 p.m. Sat., ends Feb. 2.

    Tickets: $20-$200, 612-333-6669 or www.mnopera.org.

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