STRONGMAN: New Orleans native has the licks, and the locks, for ‘Samson’ role

N.O. native sports long locks  as archenemy of Samson

In the biblical story of Samson, the hero’s fabled strength came from the length of his hair. In the operatic version of the story that’s being sung here this weekend it’s Samson’s archenemy, the High Priest of the Philistines, who has the long hair.

Greer Grimsley, a native New Orleanian who has sung on the leading stages of today’s opera world, laughs when asked about his shoulder-length hair and the similarities between him and the character he performs opposite in Camille St. Saens’ opera “Samson et Dalila” (Samson and Delilah).

“My wife teases me about it all the time,” Grimsley said.

“When I was growing up, my dad was in the Navy, and I went to Brother Martin (High School) and was in ROTC. My hair had to be short back then. When I finally could, I just let it grow long and I’ve kept it that way ever since.”

Grimsley is back in his hometown this weekend to sing the role of the High Priest in the New Orleans Opera Association production of S&D.

There will be two performances at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts: Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30. The opera is sung in French with English translations projected above the stage.

The New Orleans Opera production stars Richard Cox and Edyta Kulczak in the title roles, along with a supporting cast of six other name roles, five of which are sung by New Orleanians, including Grimsley.

Joel Colman, also a bass and cantor of Temple Sinai Uptown, makes his New Orleans Opera debut as the Old Hebrew who tries to warn Samson to stay away from Delilah.

Three members of the New Orleans Opera Chorus, Juan Luis Williams, Jacob Penick and Tyrone Chambers II, also have name roles as the First and Second Philistines and the Messenger respectively.

NOOA general and artistic director Robert Lyall conducts the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in this production, which also includes a performance by the New Orleans Ballet Theatre.

One of the leading bass-baritones in the opera world today, Grimsley is very comfortable singing the operatic roles customarily assigned to the lead bass — that of the “bad guy.”

In “Samson et Dalila” it is the High Priest who prevails on Delilah to find out the secret of Samson’s strength, and when she does, he gloats over his apparent victory over the champion of the Hebrews.

“The beauty of portraying a character like this is in trying to figure out what motivates him and other types of characters like him.

“It can be complex,” Grimsley said. “You don’t have to like the characters but there’s always something new that you find out about them every time you sing the role.”

Over a nearly 40-year career, Grimsley has performed a good many “complex and interesting characters” in the standard operatic repertoire. Being vocally proficient in the three major languages of opera – French, Italian and German – has opened many doors for him, landing him key roles at The Met and many of the other leading houses of North America, Europe and Asia. He is especially noted for his portrayal as Wotan in Wagner’s German language “Ring Cycle,” which he will perform at The Met and for Seattle Opera this spring and summer.

Following graduation at Brother Martin in 1974, Grimsley went on to study opera at Loyola University under Arthur Cosenza, another bass-baritone who served as general director of New Orleans Opera for 30 years.

“I learned a great deal from him,” Grimsley said. “He was a real asset to have in the Loyola opera program.”

Although Grimsley has spent most of his adult professional life living elsewhere — he currently lives in Boston — New Orleans remains a special place for him.

Over the years he has returned many times, both to visit with family here and to sing. “I love it here,” he said. “This will always be home for me.”

Dean Shapiro is a contributing writer. He can be reached at deanslist2@aol.com.