Donald Gramm has been singing in Washington, from time to time, almost since the beginning of his 30-year career, but tonight he will be making a sort of debut. It will be not only his first appearance at the Wolf Trap Barns, but his first appearance in Washington as a recital singer. "My operatic experience here goes back practically to the founding of the Opera Society of Washington. I may be wrong, but I think my first opera here was 'Cosi' in 1958," he recalled yesterday. "I sang with Stravinsky here for the first time in 'Rossignol' in the Lisner Auditorium, so Washington is an old stomping ground for me. But this will be the first recital I have ever sung here . . . When people ask me why I haven't sung more in Washington, I say it's because nobody asked me."
This is remarkable because if America has an answer to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, that answer is Donald Gramm: a bass-baritone who sings beautifully in many forms, styles and languages. A gifted actor as well as a singer, he characteristically performs with a special kind of polish and an acute sense of the words he is using. He has not tried conducting, as Fischer-Dieskau has, but he made his debut as a director last summer in the Wolf Trap production of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," and is planning to do more work in this field.
One of his discoveries at Wolf Trap, where he has worked not only as a director but in master classes for the young singers, is the joy of teaching. "It's a chance for me to crystallize my ideas and my attitudes," he says, "when I have to express them to a younger person who is going along the same paths I've gone. Until I began giving master classes, I didn't realize what a diversity of techniques I had developed. A part of that has to do with Sarah Caldwell, and a kind of improvisational approach: see how it works; try this; try walking; try sitting down; try starting from the back of the theater -- all kinds of possibilities. It proved to me that there is no one right way."
A career that began with church jobs in Chicago and his native Milwaukee has taken Gramm, who is 55, to most major opera houses from San Francisco to England's Glyndebourne. After his master classes at Wolf Trap and tonight's recital at the Barns, his next assignments will include supporting roles in "Boris Godunov" at the Met and in Richard Strauss' "Arabella" and Massenet's "Cendrillon" in San Francisco. "I'm not exactly dying for opportunities to sing," he notes.
While other singers seem to be pushing their voices upward -- altos going into mezzo roles and mezzos trying to be sopranos -- Gramm has gone in the other direction.
After a quarter-century of singing at a relatively high end of the bass-baritone range, in such roles as Leporello, Papageno and Nick Shadow, Gramm descended to the role of Baron Ochs in "Rosenkavalier" two years ago at Glyndebourne. "There were a lot of people sitting around at the end of the second act in the first rehearsal when I ended up on a low E, and those who have known me as Falstaff said 'Where did you get those notes?' I told them, 'I'm sorry, I've always had them, they're just there . . . ' I know there are people who cannot understand Donald Gramm as Baron Ochs -- you know, 'He's not fat enough, he's not a bass, he's too light, he's not coarse enough.' I don't say I'm not coarse enough. That might be patting myself on the back, and I know better."
Why are the others heading higher? "I think it has a little to do with glamour. I think people feel that the possibility of singing Tosca is more exciting than Dalilah or Cenerentola."
Glamour or no glamour, Gramm is not bothered by the fact that the men with low voices are usually the villains in opera and almost never get the girl at the end. "Figaro gets the girl and so does Leporello. Thank God for Mozart," he muses, leafing mentally through a quarter-century of roles. "Don Pasquale doesn't get the girl. Baron Ochs doesn't get the girl. Leporello doesn't have any love interest at all. But I don't care. Maybe it's become so much a part of my operatic tradition that I'm accustomed to it. I can't really see that it makes that much difference, and I'd rather have a good, juicy part. At a singers' round table last summer, the question came up, 'If a composer were writing an opera for you, what would you like?' and Tom Stewart said he wanted tunes. I said I wanted most of all a dramatic entrance, a mad scene, a very romantic aria at the beginning, and I want to get the girl, but I want to die at the end."
In the old days, when he was pioneering the songs of Charles Ives in vocal recitals -- long before Ives became fashionable -- some people in the audiences used to find Gramm quite coarse enough, particularly in the athletic, rabble-rousing "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven." "Some people would get very indignant and ask 'What the hell was that--banging on the tambourine?' but I would sing it for them anyway. They might never hear it again."
Tonight's program at the Barns will include "Hugo Wolf's Michelangelo songs, just to prove that I am a bass" and two groups of American songs, including some by Ives, but not the one about General Booth.
As far as American music is concerned, Gramm has been one of its most active performers throughout his career but now feels ready to pass the torch to another generation. "I can't remember how many operas I've performed that had only one or two or three performances," he says. "Now, when somebody comes around suggesting that I might learn a new opera, I say, 'I did all that, let the kids do that. They have the time to work on it.' But I think it is important. To the extent that I have anything to do with Wolf Trap -- I'm not very influential, but I'm on the board and the education committee -- I hope that we can do some American operas. I'm not sure that we should commission, because there are plenty of good works around, but the important thing is to get people to come and the musical world to be interested."