Joseph Grienenberger was bitten by the acting bug when he was ten years old, performing in school plays and the occasional community theatre production. It never occurred to him to sing, even though he says, "my mother used to claim that at two years old I would wander around the house singing 'Hello, Dolly!' in a guttural Louis Armstrong voice. I don't remember it, but it makes sense considering I got my wacky sense of humor from her." In 10th grade he wandered into his high school choir director's office, asked for an audition, and discovered he had a propensity for music. Through high school and into college, he discovered the joys of choral music, and also studied voice and piano; his first paying arts job was actually as music director for a school production of Fiddler on the Roof, going from classical piano pieces to impassioned theatre music.
He attended college for only a year, butting heads with some jaded teachers, including his music theory professor. "He kept telling me that writing parallel fifths was forbidden," he laughingly recalls, "but I liked the sound. I guess I was presumptuous to lightheartedly ask, 'Who's the arranger here?' The man was not amused." Having begun studies with a terrific private voice teacher, and having started working as a paid performing artist, he did not return to college. "I simply did not have the self-discipline at that young age; I had far too much drive to gain real world work experience. It was a trade-off that I don't regret: when friends graduated with their degrees several years later, I had already amassed a nice body of professional work, plus attained the same substantial training via intensive studies with private teachers rather than in collegiate environs. I may not have a piece of paper to authenticate my studies, but my large body of work indicates that I just might be good at what I do."
During his final semester, a classmate urged him to audition for the San Diego Gilbert & Sullivan Company, which performed in beautiful Balboa Park. He was cast as Samuel in The Pirates of Penzance in 1982, and that began an association that has continued to this day, through the company's name changes to San Diego Comic Opera and now Lyric Opera San Diego; 30 years and over 50 productions later, it's one of his home companies, and he was honored and delighted in 2005 to help inaugurate their new ownership of the magnificently restored North Park Theatre, reprising his acclaimed portrayal of Ko-Ko in The Mikado.
His other long-term association is with San Diego Opera. He auditioned for the chorus and was hired for Lohengrin. Not having been raised on grand opera, he was disenchanted with the length, the volume, the dusty dark sets, and the egos of the principal artists. It was not a good introduction to opera, and he vowed never to return. But the following year he started studying voice with SDO's chorus master, Martin Wright [now Artistic Director of the Netherlands Opera], who persuaded him to do Peter Grimes. "It was just phenomenal. Martin knew that I wanted theatricality and acting values in theatre music, and he promised me I'd find them in the works of Benjamin Britten. He was right. Grimes is meaty, earthy, and utterly human; very grand, but not in the Euro-centric "grandeur" way that to this day does little for me. I have little interest in 'park & bark' works where the music is just bellowed; since an opera is a story told through music, that means it should have some theatrical storytelling going on." That was in 1984, and in 1987 he began doing mostly full seasons with San Diego Opera, as a chorister and in a few small roles. It's a relationship that happily continues to this day.
Around the late 1980s, he began branching out into other areas of the arts, most notably as a music director and conductor. His vocal training, coupled with having worked with some world- class conductors at San Diego Opera, allowed him to prepare singing actors with a high level of finesse and flair, and he developed skills to get effective musical expression out of actors who had little or no singing experience. At first, his main music direction work was with high schools and colleges, but he eventually branched out into established theatres, eventually doing music production work for every major theatre in San Diego, including the Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse.
It was interesting that his music direction work included projects at his two home companies, San Diego Opera and Lyric Opera San Diego. At Lyric Opera [back in its earlier incarnation as San Diego Comic Opera] he submitted a proposal to conduct their first production of Fiddler on the Roof, earning excellent reviews for the vocal preparation, as well as admiration for being the first conductor to force the orchestra to play underscoring softly enough for the onstage actors to be heard [their theatre at that time had a shallow orchestra pit that often created a wall of sound, though he does credit that with having helped him learn how to project onstage without amplification!] That lead to other projects with them as a music director, arranger, and/or pianist. And at San Diego Opera, he worked for three years as music director of their Education & Outreach Department on their longtime award-winning "Opera for kids...by kids" school residency program, training children in grades 4-6 to rehearse and perform a 45-minute version of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. "It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. With funding for the arts so severely cut, that program was not only the first experience with opera for the kids; for most of them, it was their very first exposure to the live performing arts. And it was amazing that we would occasionally hire a 'problem child' for the project, and watch them just blossom in a mere six weeks into a more involved student. So much for those that say the arts aren't important in schools!"
Outside of theatre, he has continued doing a large amount of concertizing, both as a concert soloist and in a substantial amount of choral music in church choirs and with orchestras. ["Far too many Messiah's."] Among his more interesting projects was his nine-year stint with Discount Comic Opera, a wacky music parody group founded by his dear friend Kellie Evans O'Connor. "We did a lot of P.D.Q. Bach, Tom Lehrer, and Anna Russell songs, plus created a few monstrosities of our own. For some strange reason, they kept asking us back."
That group also allowed him to do some comedic writing, including parody lyrics which had long been a specialty. "I'd often write funny stuff during shows to entertain the other performers, especially during grueling tech weeks." He had contributed topic lyrics for several Gilbert & Sullivan shows at Lyric Opera San Diego, and his flair for humor resulted in writing a commissioned comedy in 2005 for Black Rabbit Theatre.
He has continued diversifying and garnering new experiences and skills, including orchestration, composition, stage direction, marketing, producing, set design, and coaching artists in voice, acting, dialects, and audition preparation. Also backstage work such as stage crew, company management, and even a frightening exposure to electric work during a theatre tour. "I've tried to become a Renaissance man, having done nearly every job in theatre except design costumes and dance ballet –– but who knows what the future holds!"