Some singers are associated with a handful of key operas, but Paul Groves has made a virtue of versatility. Since making his professional debut in 1987, the respected American tenor has performed at least 100 different roles — enough that he has lost count.
When he was beginning his career, he got some important advice in this department from noted Canadian mezzo-soprano Judith Forst. “You have a great voice, and you’re going to have a great career,” Groves recalls her telling him. “But don’t let anyone pigeonhole you into one kind of repertoire. You never know what’s going to fit you really well until you try it.”
He has followed that counsel since, even performing a considerable amount of art-song and other concert repertoire in addition to opera. And it is in that realm that he will be heard April 7-9 with Music Director Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a soloist in Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet. Although the adaptation of the celebrated Shakespearean play has quasi-theatrical elements, the groundbreaking French composer wrote it in 1839 for the concert stage and labeled it a “symphonie dramatique.”
Growing up, the Louisiana native liked opera. His father was the head of a university music department, and his family sometimes attended the Houston Grand Opera. “I guess I was the only kid in Lake Charles, La., driving around with Led Zeppelin tapes and also Luciano Pavarotti tapes blasting out of my car,” said Groves, 51, who has lived in New Orleans since 2009.
In any case, he had given no thought to being an opera singer when he attended Louisiana State University. But during his sophomore year, he decided to audition for the school’s opera chorus, performing a few arias he knew. It so happened that acclaimed soprano Martina Arroyo was a visiting faculty member at the time, and she heard him. The singer immediately took him outside and told him that he had a voice that could propel him to a major career in opera, and she urged him to pursue vocal training. He did just that, pursuing studies at LSU with longtime professor Robert Grayson, who had been a leading tenor at the New York City Opera, and later attending the Juilliard School.
Following his debut with a professional company in Baton Rouge, La., Groves performed in 1988 at Glimmerglass Opera (now known as the Glimmerglass Festival), near Cooperstown, N.Y. Groves’ career really took off in 1991, though, when he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, a competition that has set many of this country’s top singers on the road to stardom. For many years thereafter, he performed regularly at the Met, and he continues to think of as his home company. “I felt like I grew up there,” he said. “Every year I went back, and it was like going back to school again after the summer. I don’t sing there as much as I did. I go every couple years now, but it is still the place where I’ve performed the most and for the most amount of time.”
Looking back over his nearly 30 years as a professional singer, Groves said that his career has turned out much better than he ever imagined. “I’ve been really lucky,” he said, “in that I’ve had very good advice, really good mentors and a great agent who led my career in a way that I could be around for a long time. Plus, when I got to the Metropolitan Opera, I imagined that I was the next Plácido Domingo, like most of us tenors do, but [music director] James Levine convinced me to go slowly and sing the lighter repertoire for as long as I could possibly do it well. He said if you want to have a long career, that’s the way to do it — always sing one notch below what your 100 percent effort level would be. It’s almost like an athlete. If you’re not completely taxing yourself every time you go out and perform, the chances are you’ll probably last longer.”
Groves’ impressive versatility has been much in evidence this season, starting last fall when he made his role debut in Massenet’s rarely heard opera, Le Cid, staged by Boston’s Odyssey Opera in a full-length concert performance. One of the first opera recordings that Groves purchased many years ago happened to feature Le Cid, so he had long known the work.
From Nov. 5 through Dec. 3, he took part in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Alban Berg’s still-shocking Lulu (1935), directed by famed South African artist William Kentridge. “It was fantastic,” Groves said. “The actual singing-acting cast of that opera was unlike anything you could ever have had in the past, because we may not have a lot of Verdi baritones these days, but we have people who can sign and act Lulu and really be involved in it without staring at the conductor the whole time. It’s the hardest opera ever written. I’ve done really modern music and world premieres, and there’s nothing even close to this piece.”
In February, he appeared in Opera Philadelphia’s East Coast debut of composer Jennifer Higdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain, which took considerable heat from critics when it premiered last summer at the Santa Fe (N.M.) Opera. New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe acknowledged the anticipation leading up to the work’s unveiling, given the popularity of the novel on which it is based and Higdon’s standing in the classical world. “But in an awkward staging by Leonard Foglia,” Woolfe wrote, “with a cast that tries its best, this Cold Mountain exists neither in the East nor in the West but rather in the generic post-Copland, post-Britten landscape — wary both of being too lyrical and too dissonant — of so much contemporary American music. Scrubbing away the novel’s rich, woodsy atmosphere, the opera isn’t left with much.”
But Groves completely disagrees. “It’s a wonderful opera,” he said. “The story and setting of it is just fantastic, and we had a great cast. For the public, it’s extremely successful. People love it. There’s beautiful music, but at the same time, it’s innovative and still modern.”
With the CSO, Groves will join mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova and bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as soloists in Romeo and Juliet, a work in which he has appeared four or five times previously. It will mark a reunion with a conductor he knows well. Groves auditioned with Muti in 1994 and appeared the following year in a new production of The Magic Flute at La Scala in Milan, where Muti was music director for 19 years. For the next 10 years, Groves performed primarily with Levine or Muti. “He’s a brilliant conductor,” Groves said of the latter. “Definitely the best performances I’ve ever sung have been with him. He knows voices so well.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
TOP: Paul Groves in the Metropolitan Opera production of Alban Berg’s Lulu (1935), directed by famed South African artist William Kentridge. | Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera