Opera lovers throughout southern California are buzzing with anticipation since it was announced late last year that LA Opera will be mounting Richard Wagner’s epic, four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen for the first time in 2010. More commonly referred to as “the Ring Cycle,” these operas weave a monumental tale of good vs. evil drawn from Norse mythology.
Fortunately, fans and neophytes alike don’t have to wait until next year to experience Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold) and Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the first two operas in the Cycle. Their first-ever productions by LA Opera are being staged this month and next at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Acclaimed mezzo-soprano and out lesbian Jill Grove assays the role of Erda in Das Rheingold, which will play February 21 through March 15. In a recent interview with Reverend, Grove described her classic part and spoke freely about her background and growing success in opera.
“Erda is the Earth goddess, and the goddess of time,” Grove explained. “It’s a great character with great music. Also, since Erda’s time on stage is seven minutes, the role has a great time-to-pay ratio!”
Of the Ring Cycle in general, Grove said, “It is so spectacular and always great to play.” Since Wagner’s work is lengthy and hasn’t been performed locally until now, Grove iterated, “I really hope people won’t be afraid of the Cycle; it’s very accessible, and Das Rheingold will be a great introduction.”
Many opera and/or Wagner devotees have traveled at one time or another to experience a Ring production somewhere in the world. Grove believes they will also be interested in LA Opera’s take on the classic. “The director (Achim Freyer) is doing a non-traditional production, without the stereotypical pointy breast-cones.” To those who may have pre-conceived notions of Das Rheingold and the Ring Cycle, Grove insists “This won’t be your typical production.”
Also far from typical for a rising star in the opera world is Grove’s upbringing. “I come from a family in Texas that had no opera or music,” she said. “Sports and tennis were part of our family growing up; singing was contained to church.”
Grove sang in her church choir, and began to discover she had talent. It wasn’t until she got to college, though, that she discovered the world of opera. “Once I was in Houston and played a maid in Elektra, that was my first professional thing I’d ever done,” Grove recounts. “It was so impressive and looked like a big movie, which was much more my point of reference. Then I thought, ‘I could do that! That is very cool’!”
Since college, opera has been “the only job I’ve ever had,” according to Grove. “I’ve been very fortunate.” She has been performing essentially non-stop around the world since 1992, and was named as a winner of opera’s coveted ARIA award in 2003.
While Grove counts her roles as Amneris in Verdi’s Aida and the Nurse in Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten as her favorites to date, she also spoke fondly of her 1996 performance as GLBT-rights activist Anne Kronenberg in the San Francisco Opera-Houston Grand Opera world premiere of Harvey Milk (a recordingof which is available on CD).
Grove considers the current, Oscar-nominated movie Milk “Phenomenal; it shows both how far our community has come and how far we still have to go. But things have changed for the better in many ways (since Milk’s time). I don’t feel the danger today that gay men in particular must have felt then.”
In assessing the state of opera today for GLBT artists, Grove similarly feels our community has come a long way. “Behind the scenes, (LGBT involvement in opera) is huge,” she revealed. “It isn’t quite as closeted as it used to be as far as gay and lesbian performers are concerned; I haven’t felt nor had any negative response throughout my career.”
But Grove says there is more progress yet to be made. “The atmosphere, on one hand, is great, but on the other hand it’s hard for lesbian and gay artists due to enduring stereotypes. It’s the same for African-American artists.”
Does Grove consider herself a diva, as some female opera singers are termed? “No, I don’t,” she replied firmly. “The opera world breeds an elitism and it’s easy to become a diva, but I’m not one; I don’t have that expectation that someone should do more for me than they would do for anybody else.”
Grove clarified that while in the opera world “there are those who need to O.D. on attention,” women aren’t the only gender susceptible. She confirms that male “Divos exist, too!”
When she isn’t performing, Grove spends time with her spouse, Keren James, and their ten-month old son Gryffen at their home in San Francisco. She and Karen “got married the first day we could” in San Francisco. Like so many of us, they are hoping Proposition 8 will soon be overturned.
In the meantime, Grove is happy singing Erda in Das Rheingold, confident, like the opera’s heroes, that light and love will triumph in the end over darkness and hate.
For further information about Das Rheingold or the Ring Cycle in Los Angeles, please visit the official website of the LA Opera or call 213-972-8001.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.