One of the great highlights of the New York Philharmonic's The Russian Stravinsky festival, curated and conducted by Valery Gergiev, will be performances of the opera/oratorio Oedipus Rex, starring tenor Anthony Dean Griffey. "I have a very special place in my heart for the New York Philharmonic," Mr. Griffey says. "The Orchestra gave me my start in concert repertoire and I so love working with them. The players seem to enjoy vocal repertoire and involve themselves in the text and the work as a whole; with this orchestra, things are what they should be : collaboration at its finest."
For the lyric yet clarion tenor, who is in his early forties, the role of Oedipus is also a chance to broaden the niche he has carved for himself in the opera world. He has sung in a gallery of 20th-century masterpieces, giving portrayals of tortured souls, societal misfits, and lovable antiheros (such as Peter Grimes) that have made him a recent Grammy winner and a favorite of such conductors as André Previn (who has composed for Mr. Griffey), Alan Gilbert, James Conlon, James Levine, Seiji Ozawa, and Michael Tilson Thomas.
"This is my first Oedipus," the tenor smiles, "and I love the 'hand in hand' strength of the text with the music and the idea of using an ancient language like Latin in a secular rather than a liturgical context." He continues: "I seem to gravitate toward characters like Oedipus : it's partly my voice type and partly my predilection for speaking out for those who are misunderstood. It's important for me to choose roles that bring healing to such people, so I will enjoy taking the audience on the journey of this king from Sophocles' great play : a man who has so much tragic responsibility thrust upon him, some- one who holds a mirror up to society and makes it look at itself in all its hypocrisy."
Anthony Dean Griffey was born in Highpoint, North Carolina, and he credits its public school system with his early musical education. He went on to earn degrees from the Eastman School of Music and The Juilliard School. As a Young Artist at The Met, he played the Boyar-in-Attendance, a small role in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, which offered him the chance to work with Valery Gergiev. That experience, plus many opportunities of seeing the conductor work with The Met Orchestra, made the tenor hungry for more.
"I've always wanted to work more intensely with Maestro Gergiev," Mr. Griffey confides, "and this amazing Stravinsky piece will allow me to do that. He will bring that wonderful penchant he has for collaboration, expression, and originality of thought; he always voices ideas that would never occur to you!"
Comparisons to Jon Vickers from the recent past and Ben Heppner in the present have followed Mr. Griffey throughout his short but illustrious career, but he has resisted advice that has urged him to pursue the direction of Verdi and Wagner. "Possibly these will be suitable in the future, but for now," he says, "I enjoy being a three-prong singer : opera, recital, and concert. A steady diet of Heldentenor would rule out this career path."
While individuality is Mr. Griffey's artistic credo, his personal beliefs are deeply rooted in his need to give back to the audiences that applaud him. To that end he has tirelessly worked in mental health associations and homeless shelters, and as an advocate for music in the public school system. "We 'Artists' must step out of our ivory towers and make certain that everyone is exposed to the healing power of music. After you realize that being yourself is enough," he muses, "your biggest life lesson is that responsibility comes with every opportunity you are given."
Oedipus Rex will be presented in New York Philharmonic programs April 28, 29, 30 and May 1. Click here for schedule and tickets.
Robin Tabachnik is a New York _based arts and culture journalist who writes frequently for Playbill, Town & Country, and IN New York magazine.