Tenor Jay Hunter Morris Says Long Haul Worth It

Roy C. Dicks, What's the Score?By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?

Raleigh, NC – January 20, 2013    Texas-born tenor, Jay Hunter Morris, has lived out the showbiz cliché in which a last-minute replacement goes on stage to save the day. Morris was at the Metropolitan Opera in October 2011, understudying the title role in Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried,” part of the company’s new “Ring Cycle.”

Jay Hunter Morris, born to be Siegfried (Metropolitan Opera)
Jay Hunter Morris, born to be Siegfried (Metropolitan Opera)

Less than a week before opening night, Morris was told he would be taking over what is considered the most difficult and longest tenor role in all opera. After just two rehearsals, he went on, wowing critics and audiences alike, including thousands in over 60 countries who viewed a live transmission to movie theaters of a later performance. Morris has come a long way from his days as a Nashville gospel and country music singer.

It was only after a friend took him to see “La Traviata” that he became interested in opera. But before his break-through Met performances, he had considered stopping all together because he had so few engagements. Now in great demand, Morris is thankful for those who believed in him during his two-decade journey to the top. One was Eric Mitchko, general director of N.C. Opera, who was Morris’ manager for several years and later hired him at the Atlanta Opera.

Mitchko is bringing Morris to Raleigh on Sunday, January 27, in Meymandi Concert Hall for an all-Wagner concert with Met colleagues, Elizabeth Bishop and Peter Volpe, conducted by Timothy Myers. The program includes a concert staging of the first act of “Die Walküre,” along with a selection of arias. In a recent phone conversation, Morris spoke in his distinctive Texas twang about his Met “Siegfried,” the long years leading up to that event, and next weekend’s concert.

Q: What was it like having to prepare for “Siegfried” so quickly?

A: Well, my wife and son knew to run and hide when I got the role to let me be as crazy and obsessed and nervous as I needed to be. Siegfried is a wild ride – you just have to hang on and hope you get through it all still standing. I had already performed the role at San Francisco Opera that summer  – also as a replacement – but this was a different story, with such short notice and in such a technically challenging production.

Q: Did you ever dream about singing Wagnerian roles?

A: There’s a saying in my family, “we can’t force great things but we can welcome opportunities.” I never really thought I’d ever sing these major roles, even though I sat in many understudy rehearsals thinking how I would do the parts.

Q: You give Eric Mitchko a lot of credit for your career.

A: Eric has given me chances everywhere he’s been. When he was my manager, he gave me more work than at any other time in my career.  I was a little lost after he left because I thought there would be no one who would ever champion me like that again. I’ve been happy to give back by going wherever he asks.

Q: Do you feel you’ve been lucky in your career, despite the rough patches?

A: Well, I’ve not had to resort to manual labor too often to cover the hard times! The long haul has been worth it though, especially with all that has happened recently. In the last year and a half, I’ve sung Siegfried in the Met’s “Götterdämmerung,” Tristan in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in Los Angeles, and Captain Ahab in Jake Heggie’s “Moby-Dick” in Adelaide, San Diego and San Francisco.

Q: How do you take care of your voice and make decisions about roles to take on?

A: I know how fragile a career is. I could be just one misstep away from derailing my career. I could fall down the stairs or I could get some allergies or other medical problems. I could try to sing the wrong things, as I did when I was singing Manon Lescaut – I listened to Mario Del Monaco and tried to sing it like him, until I realized I was going to wreck my voice. It just takes one misstep and then it’s somebody else’s turn.

Q: How do you balance your career with your wife and three year-old son?

A: There’s a simple answer to that – I always put them first. They are very supportive and come with me whenever they can. When we were in San Francisco, I got to walk with my son on the Golden Gate Bridge and we saw a whale. It was great.

Q: Is this the first time you are singing the role of Siegmund (Siegfried’s father) in “Die Walküre”?

A: Yes, I understudied Placido Domingo in the role in Los Angeles but I’ve never sung the role in public (the majority of the role is in Act I). Every tenor likes to sing it – glorious melodies, a great duet – and it’s short!

[A version of this article appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on January 20, 2013]