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The Opera Singer: Tony Griffey's road to opera stardom and the Grammys began at Wingate

by Chuck Gordon

Griffey’s road to opera stardom and the Grammys began at Wingate

Performers generally prefer not to die on stage, but Tony Griffey ’90is pretty good at it. Griffey, more commonly known in opera circles as Anthony Dean Griffey, is best known for a trio of roles that require him to expire before the end of the production – and whose death, much like Griffey’s clear, booming tenor voice, is a major part of the opera. He manages the feat with realism and the appropriate amount of suffering.

Griffey is more than just a pretty voice. He has received praise from reviewers for his turns as Lennie in Of Mice and Menand as the title character in Peter Grimes, and he received a pair of Grammys for his work in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny, where he played the doomed Jimmy. He’s a natural on stage in what could be called the biathlon of music: Opera combines two disciplines, acting and unmic’d classical singing, and Griffey is accomplished at both.

“His characters seem to die more often than other characters,” says Dr. Martha Asti, longtime administrator and music professor at Wingate University. “And he’s very good at it.”

So good, in fact, that Griffey is, as Asti puts it, “theperson in the world to do Peter Grimes.” When an opera house decides it wants to present a performance of Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera about a fisherman accused of murder, it looks first to Griffey.

Griffey didn’t come to Wingate with dreams of becoming an opera star. In the 1980s, you didn’t start your path to the Met at Wingate. There was no opera program at the University, and most music students were eyeing music ministries and teaching positions.

Griffey had an amazing voice, but he assumed when he moved into Helms Dormitory in August of 1986, a gentle giant from a family of factory workers in High Point, that he would become a minister of music. Supplying Baptist churches with talented musicians to help spread the Gospel was one of the Music Department’s specialties – still is, though the department has grown in both number of students and in scope since the mid-1980s, when Griffey found out about it through a member of his church. Although his goal was to one day set the tone for Sunday services, the young tenor from High Point was a special performer, and several members of the music faculty recognized that. They nurtured and encouraged the hard-working Griffey, introduced him to opera, even helped him dip his toe in the acting waters for the first time.

And then they followed him around the world as he became a star. 

 

Finding his passion

Anthony Dean Griffey feels that one of his biggest assets as a high-profile opera singer is that he has always remained Tony Griffey from High Point. His honesty helps make him such an appealing performer.

“That and my individuality,” he says. “I didn’t hide the fact that I came from North Carolina. I didn’t ever deny what I came from, and I always knew truly who I was deep down.”

High Point is the self-proclaimed “Home Furnishings Capital of the World.” Abundant hardwood forests and cheap labor kick-started the Piedmont area’s rise to furniture mecca in the late 1800s, and today the High Point Furniture Market still draws 85,000 customers and exhibitors to the city twice a year. Shoppers come from around the world to peruse the dressers, armoires, bed frames and chairs on display.

The golden era of North Carolina furniture manufacturing coincided with Griffey’s youth, and both of his parents were low-wage workers in furniture factories. “They were not a family of means,” says Dr. Ron Bostic, former head of the Music Department, now retired. “He sometimes had to be a leader in the family. That served him well in terms of his maturity.”

Griffey grew up quickly – physically and emotionally. Now 6-foot-4 and about 300 pounds, Griffey was always a big kid, and he has a commanding presence on the stage. Emotionally, he was forced to develop earlier than most of his peers. His parents were barely literate, and Griffey often took on many of the tasks that in other households were attended to by adults, such as reading the mail and paying bills. In an interview 20 years ago, Griffey told The New York Timesthat, as a 9-year-old, he once had to call and beg for his father to get his job back. Later diagnosed with schizophrenia, the elder Griffey was prone to lashing out, and Griffey often had to serve as protector of his mother and younger brother.

Griffey emerged from this relative poverty and unstable home life with a golden voice but no clear idea that there was a path available to him that could lead to Paris, Sydney, San Francisco and the world’s other great opera houses. “I didn’t have stage parents at all, which in my case was a good thing,” Griffey says. “My mom and family, they just wanted me to graduate from college. Doing what I’m doing now, they had no idea.”

Others had an inkling that a wider world awaited Griffey. Lloyd Thayer, who was superintendent of High Point City Schools and attended First Baptist Church of High Point with Griffey, also happened to be a Wingate College trustee (the University’s School of Education is named for Thayer and his wife). He encouraged Griffey to check out Wingate, which proved to be a good fit, especially with Griffey pursuing a career as a minister of music.

Once Griffey got there, more than a few people could envision him on the stage. Judy Hutton taught Griffey piano theory, and she became close with him when he served as her student assistant.

Hutton says that Griffey, a large man but somewhat shy, came alive when he stepped on the stage at Wingate. “He obviously had a beautiful voice as a youngster, and my observation was that he seemed more comfortable on the stage when he was going to perform than he did walking the halls,” she says. “He was a natural performer.”

“He was coming into a new world coming to Wingate and needed encouragement,” Bostic says. “He got it from Dr. Thayer, and then ultimately he got it from faculty. He got it from everybody who would hear him perform.”

Such encouragement helped fuel a determined work ethic. While at Wingate, Griffey often camped out in Burnside Dalton, the building where the Music Department was located before the Batte Center opened in 1999. “My name should be on the Burnside Dalton building,” Griffey says. “I practically lived on that first floor.”

“I’d come over and work on Sunday afternoon and he’d be practicing, and he and I would be the only two people in the building,” Bostic says. “He was just driven.”

 

Mastering Lennie

Griffey has never angled to be Three Tenors famous, but opera fans know his work. His popularity begins with his full, clear voice.

Dr. Ken Murray, now retired but a music professor during Griffey’s undergrad days, says the secret lies in Griffey’s ability to enunciate clearly while also hitting his notes and reaching the back of the opera house. Griffey’s voice, Murray says, is known for “fullness and clarity, especially the diction, being able to understand the words he was singing, no matter what language it was.”

“It was important, because my voice developed operatically, that people understood me,” Griffey says. “So on Saturday night, before I’d sing in church on Sunday, I’d sing for my little brother and the family, and then I’d have him raise his hand if he didn’t understand every word.”

The result is a voice that is memorable. But it isn’t showy. Griffey is content being known in the opera world, rather than being recognized by non-opera-fans, as Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras are.

“His voice has a rather unique tenor quality,” Hutton says. “Tony always says, ‘I don’t try to be Pavarotti. I don’t try to be anybody. I just try to be me.’”

When someone mentions opera to the uninitiated, the first thought is often of a large woman wearing a Viking helmet attempting to shatter a wine glass, or Pavarotti hitting a high-C in Italian. Most often, it’s in a foreign tongue.

But operas are written in many languages and cover a variety of themes. Griffey has chosen to primarily perform English-speaking operas from the 20thcentury, mostly because the roles in those operas tend to suit him best. The better-known dramatic tenors, such as Pavarotti and Domingo, made their names playing larger-than-life roles of derring-do. Griffey, often referred to as a “lyric tenor,” brings a more understated depth to his roles.

In 1997, Griffey played Lennie Small, a large, mentally handicapped migrant worker, in an operatic rendition of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Menat the Glimmerglass, a small opera house in Cooperstown, New York. The New York Timeswas glowing in its review. “The star of this show was Anthony Dean Griffey, a dramatic tenor with beautiful, free high notes and lovely portamento, who embodied the physical ponderousness and childish mental confusion of the slow-witted Lennie,” Anthony Tomassini wrote.

Carlisle Floyd, the composer of the piece, told The New York Timesthat Griffey’s performance “was as perfectly realized a portrayal as anyone could hope for, both musically and dramatically.”

“He was always Lennie,” Floyd continued. “Other tenors sort of attack the role. He embodies it.” In the spring of 2013, Griffey brought Floyd, a South Carolina native, to Wingate to teach a master class (and to receive an honorary doctorate).

Jessie Wright Martin, director of Wingate Opera, was surprised to learn when she arrived on campus a decade ago that Griffey was an alum.

“He’s a really, really good actor,” she says. “He fully immerses himself. One of the roles he’s most known for is Lennie in Of Mice and Men. He just totally commits to that character. Beside the fact that his voice is gorgeous. I mean, it’s so beautiful to listen to. There are so many singers out there who have beautiful voices, but they don’t convince you. And he just commits so much to it.”

Griffey has the stature to play Lennie, but he also has the acting chops. For that role, he drew upon the many summers he spent working at a camp for children with disabilities. For others, he simply lets his natural acting talent shine through.

Griffey had done very little acting before coming to Wingate, but he proved to be a natural when former professor Larry Coleman decided to put on a musical, Little Mary Sunshine, back in the late ’80s. Wingate’s opera program was not started until 2007, and Coleman’s production was Griffey’s first opportunity to start developing the acting component of his performance repertoire.

“He was terrific,” Asti says. “He stole the show.”

“I was delighted at his acting and dancing,” Murray says. “Light on his feet, for a big man especially. That was the first time I was aware of how good an actor he was.”

He brings that same combination of muscular musicality and accomplished dramatic skill to opera – which is no mean feat, considering that opera singers do not have the benefit of microphones.

“Opera houses are huge, and to a lot of people you look like you’re an inch tall, if you get seats way in the back,” Asti says. “It’s really a challenge for an opera singer, and I think he does that as well as anybody today.”

Had Griffey not stepped out of his comfort zone and applied to grad school, his voice might never have filled the world’s great opera halls.

 

Eastman and Juilliard

Griffey had his eyes opened to opera at Wingate. Hutton took students to Opera Carolina, and on a Great American Heritage trip to New York, Asti took Griffey and a group of students to the Metropolitan Opera for a performance.

He had ambition even then. “We got tickets – they were so far from the stage, we thought they were in the Bronx – but we were in the theater, and that was so special,” Asti says. “Tony turned to me and said, ‘I’m going to be on a first-name basis with everybody on that stage.’”

Hearing opera sung in a true opera house helped Griffey see a fully realized vision of where his career could go. But he was also practical, and it took some convincing for him to decide to pursue a singing career.

“One time he said, ‘Mrs. Hutton, I’ve learned that I can go to seminary free,” Hutton says. “I said, ‘Tony, I don’t think that’s what you want to do. Let’s at least try for more than that.’”

“More than that” turned out to be a master’s program at the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, New York, one of the two best-known music schools in the country (we’ll get to the other in a bit). After singing at a local National Association of Teachers of Singing audition, Griffey was encouraged by an Eastman faculty member, the late Marsha Baldwin, to apply. He was given a full scholarship.

At Eastman, Griffey excelled as a student and learned that he could survive outside of his North Carolina comfort zone. “My classmates back in the 90s called me ‘Country Come to Town,’” he said in an interview with a Rochester classical-music station. “I had plaid shirts on and blue jeans and was just thrilled to be here.”

At Eastman, Griffey studied with world-renowned teachers and attended master classes with opera stars, such as Renee Fleming. Griffey began to understand fully what an opera career entailed, and toward the end of his program at Eastman, he took a chance and went to New York City to audition for Beverly Johnson, a famed classical-music teacher at Juilliard. She was 87 at the time.

“She said, ‘You have a hell of a lot of talent and a hell of a lot to learn,’” Griffey says.

Johnson became Griffey’s mentor, working with him for the next eight years. She taught him the voice component of his craft but also valuable life lessons.

“She was like a football coach,” Griffey says. “She prepared me emotionally and physically – and financially.” She knew that Griffey had never had much money in his life, and she helped him learn to handle sudden financial success.

“She prepared me for all that,” Griffey says. “She’d seen and heard it all, but she had the energy of a 16-year-old. And she saw something in me that she felt was major career potential.

“I always said if I moved to New York City and had a weak teacher, I never would have had a career.”

He also had the benefit of a stable foundation. “Wingate was a good place for me to kind of simmer and hang out, kind of in a crockpot setting, to simmer for four years and figure out what I wanted to do and where I was supposed to go,” he says. “It was a good place for me and really gave me a good foundation. I wouldn’t have been prepared emotionally to go to Juilliard when I was 18. I’ve seen many students do that, and they kind of burn out.”

Griffey earned a second master’s degree at Juilliard, in 1994, and was immediately accepted into the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Development Program, a three-year apprenticeship. The program is essentially a training ground for the Metropolitan Opera, and it’s where Griffey’s career really took off.

“You work side by side with the professionals in the business,” he says. “Sometimes you cover them. I covered Pavarotti and sang on a recording with him. It really launched my career.”

And what a career it’s been.

 

‘Sanctuary of the world’

These days, Griffey, 50, is pulling double duty in the classical-music world. He still performs, and he has returned to Eastman as a tenured professor, teaching private voice lessons in the same classrooms where he refined his craft as a student over a quarter-century ago. “I think it’s important as educators to give back the knowledge that you’ve learned during your time of working in the professional world,” he says.

Griffey’s performance schedule has been scaled-back slightly. Thanks to a careful lifestyle, Griffey’s voice is still pristine. “My voice is as fresh as it was when I was 20 years old,” he says.

Although he continues to travel the world singing with philharmonics, he did no opera performances in 2017. He was partially saving his vocal chords for this fall, when he’ll create the role of Mr. Strutt in an operatic performance of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnieat his old stomping grounds, New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Hutton and her husband caught Griffey’s debut at the Met, back in the ’90s, and Asti and Hutton have traveled the world to experience several other of Griffey’s vocal triumphs. Asti saw Griffey perform at Carnegie Hall for the first time, heard him at the Kennedy Center and flew to France alongside Hutton for his Paris Opera debut, when he performed Peter Grimes. “It was fabulous,” she says.

In March 2008, a Met production of Peter Grimes was simulcast in theaters, and Wingate Opera students watched the performance from the Stonecrest cinema in Charlotte. Griffey gave the University a shoutout during intermission, and the theater erupted in cheers.

In 2007 Asti, Hutton and Jane McCoy, Griffey’s first voice teacher at Wingate, were in the audience when Griffey starred in the Los Angeles Opera’s performance of Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahaggony, alongside Patti Lupone and Audra McDonald. The performance was captured on DVD, and the recording of it was nominated for two Grammy Awards, for “Best Classical Album” and “Best Opera Recording.”

Griffey initially decided to blow off the ceremony.

“I wasn’t going to go to the Grammys,” he says. “There were four other people in the category, Placido Domingo being one of them, and I thought, I’m not going to win. My manager said, ‘You know, if you win it’s one of the best days of your life. If you lose, it’s one of the longest days of your life.’”

Griffey decided two days before the event that he would attend, and the recording wound up winning in both categories. (Griffey added two more Grammys in 2010 for his work as the principal soloist on a live recording of the San Francisco Symphony’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 and the Adagio from Symphony No. 10.)

Griffey’s manager was only half right, though. Feb. 8, 2009, was indeed one of the best days of Griffey’s life, but it was also one of the longest, as he gave interview after interview after the ceremony. The trophies are now displayed in his studio at the Eastman School, but for years Griffey kept them in a closet at his home in High Point. “They’re very nice, but they’re quite fragile, because every one of them is handmade,” he says.

Griffey reached probably his biggest audience ever soon after leaving the Young Artist Program. In 1998, he was selected by Seiji Ozawa, director of the Boston Symphony, to be one of four soloists in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

Griffey has been all over the world to enchant audiences with his golden voice, an aspiring minister of music who found a congregation much larger than a young son of factory workers could have ever imagined.

“I’ve always known that my voice was a gift from God, but I thought the only way for me to use it was in a church setting,” he says. “I didn’t realize that my sanctuary would be much bigger than just seeing the same congregation every week, that it would be the sanctuary of the world.

“The career I chose – or it chose me – was not the easy way out by any means. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get where I am today, but it was well worth the trip.”

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