The following interview took place on the “ranch” of the Santa Fe Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is deeply appreciated:
[Below: Jay Hunter Morris; resized image, based on a Vii Tanner publicity photograph.]
Wm: My first question asks your earliest memories of music.
JHM: I grew up in Paris, Texas.
Wm: There is a movie about that place!
JHM: Well remember, no one in the movie ever made it there! But Paris Texas was a great place to grow up.
My father was a church music master, and I grew up singing in the church choir and then in high school choir. I played in the required garage rock and roll band and I sang at the Kiwanis Club and at happy hour at the Holiday Inn.
I didn’t grow up listening to any opera and certainly did not expect it to beguile me.
I always knew that I had a voice, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I played a little guitar, piano, sang a bit of jazz, some country songs and church songs and a little bit of everything.
Wm: How did you move from country into opera?
JHM: It happened when I was 25. I went to see Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Dallas Opera. I was fascinated. The Alfredo that night was Alfredo Kraus.
I hovered backstage until Kraus came out and told him how much I enjoyed his singing. I told him I wanted to try to learn to sing opera. Kraus told me that his friend, Thomas Hayward, the former Met tenor was a voice instructor in the Dallas area. He gave me Tommy’s card.
I followed up and contacted Hayward, who agreed to give me a lesson. Hayward liked my voice and assisted me in applying for Southern Methodist University, where I ended up getting a graduate degree. He also contacted Dallas Opera’s director Jonathan Pell and got me a position in the Dallas Opera Chorus.
Wm: I’ve heard of lucky breaks, but yours is beyond imagination. There are lots of Dallas Opera chorus men who aren’t singing Siegfried. What happened next?
JHM: When the Dallas season came to a close, I went to Jonathan Pell and asked him what I should do next. He called Santa Fe Opera’s John Crosby on my behalf and asked if all the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice positions were filled. Crosby said that he would hear me, and I became a Santa Fe Apprentice next summer, 1990. I covered Rodolfo (in Puccini’s “La Boheme”) and was in the chorus and sang in Wolfgang Rihm’s “Oedipus”. Francesca Zambello was the director.
Wm: How did your summer in Santa Fe influence your later career?
JHM: It turned out to be very important. At Santa Fe I met a group from the Juilliard Opera Center, who invited me to New York.
Wm: You were accepted into the Juilliard Opera Center and graduated two years later with a vocal performance degree, during which time you appeared in operas by Delius, Barber, and others. This is what led to your Broadway career?
JHM: I had a few good jobs, one at a time, after graduation. Then I was asked to audition for Terrence McNally’s play Master Class. I didn’t want to do a play, but my manager strong-armed me into the audition with Leonard Foglia.
Wm: Who not only directed Master Class, but Heggie’s “Moby Dick” also. He’s here in Santa Fe directing the world premiere of Higdon’s “Cold Mountain”.
JHM: In Master Class I had the role of Tony Tightpants, a wanna-be operatic tenor. I got to sing eight shows a week, the best thing I can hope for. One night Lotfi Mansouri, then general director of the San Francisco Opera, was in the audience. He appeared backstage and invited me to perform the role of Mitch in the world premiere run of Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” in San Francisco.
Wm: This began several consecutive years of appearances at the San Francisco – in Charpentier’s “Louise”, in Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” and in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tsar’s Bride”.
You were also Walther in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”. When was it decided that you were a Wagnerian tenor?
JHM: Lotfi called me in during the intermission of a Sunday matinee performance of “Streetcar” and asked if I would learn Walther’s prize song for him and be prepared to sing it for him the next Friday, which, of course, I did.
He said, “You just might be a fine tenor someday. You aren’t now., but just maybe someday” He brought together his artistic staff and said, “What can we do to get him ready for “Die Meistersinger?” He gave me two performances as Walther.
Wm: I still have my ticket stubs to that Sunday matinee performance in 2001, in which James Morris sang Hans Sachs and Jay Hunter Morris sang Walther. You certainly sounded like a Wagnerian tenor to me.
JHM: That Walther von Stolzing you saw opened up a world for me. Best of all, I caught a glimpse of whom I might be someday, if I can ever convince my throat to obey me!
Speight Jenkins, the General Director of the Seattle Opera, flew to Frankfurt to hear me sing Stolzing. He then said to me that he would offer me the role of Erik in Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” in Seattle, and later asked me to cover Siegfried in “Siegfried” and “” for the 2009 Seattle Opera performances of the Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”.
The biggest break in my career wasn’t opening at the Met, but it was Speight Jenkins saying to me “I want you learn the Siegfried roles and to be ready to cover them in 2009”. The new chapter began in earnest.
[Below: Erik (Jay Hunter Morris, left) pledges his love to Senta (Melody Moore, right) in Francesca Zambello’s 2013 Glimmerglass Festival production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman”; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Wm: I’ve mentioned a brief encounter between us that season to you previously. The next month you were singing Steva in Janacek’s “Jenufa”. After the performance, I saw you outside the War Memorial Opera House and said to you that I believed that someday you would be singing Siegfried on the War Memorial Opera House stage. Ten years later that actually happened!
JHM: I got to work with Music Director Donald Runnicles. He helped me prepare for Stolzing, Steva, Siegfried, and many others. It’s one thing to say I’ll give you a job, quite another to say, I’ll help you get ready to be successful in the job!
Wm: You never seemed to regard being a role’s cover as a detriment to one’s career.
JHM: I got paid to learn the roles in Seattle, and that resulted in the Los Angeles Opera asking me to learn the role of Siegmund in “Die Walkure” and to be the cover for Placido Domingo. So I got to sit in the audience to watch men who were really good, perform the roles I was covering. Watching the “pro”s is a privilege, and getting paid to do it makes it even sweeter.
I said to myself, someday you’ll be good at this. I can’t place a value on that experience.
Wm: You would advise young artists to take cover roles when offered as part of what they should be doing to build their careers.
JHM: I advise young artists to say, yes, thank you very much, whenever someone offers to pay them to sing.
Let’s think about it. I covered the role of Siegfried in Wagner’s “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung” and of Captain Ahab in Heggie’s “Moby Dick”. I learned all these roles and it paid off for me. Not only was I called upon to replace other artists in each of these roles I was covering, these now are the roles that I’m most associated with.
After all these years, my voice still has a mind of its own. It still takes me lots of work in the practice room and trying every day to get my vocal performance right. As great artists before me have said, it is a lifetime’s work.
Look, this is hard. We all must do everything in our power to excel in this glorious art form.
An artist needs to put a lot of work into preparing a role, and when you cover another artist in a role you’ve not performed a lot helps with that preparation. Then, if you are lucky, some day you’ll find somebody who believes in you!
Wm: And there are important persons in opera who have believed in you!
JHM: What I regard as my biggest blessing over my 26-year career is that I’ve always had a champion who believed in me. First it was Jonathan Pell in Dallas, then Lotfi Mansouri in San Francisco, then Speight Jenkins in Seattle and Ian Campbell in San Diego, Francesca Zambello, and others.
Wm: You played the role of Teague in Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” at its world premiere in Santa Fe and will repeat the role at the Opera Philadelphia.
And you were also sang Mitch in the world premiere season of Previn’s “Streetcar Named Desire”, and performed the world premieres of Goldenthal’s “Grendel” and Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking”.
And I have vivid memories of your Marky in Shore’s opera “The Fly”.
JHM: I have wonderful memories of “The Fly”. The world premiere took place in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet on my birthday. My wife and I went to the opening night party and Placido Domingo, who conducted the opera, stopped me to say that I might be a great Siegfried. I floated home that night.
[Below: Captain Ahab (Jay Hunter Morris, center, left, on peg leg) stands aboard the deck of the whaling ship Pequot; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Wm: And that brings up the role of Captain Ahab in Heggie’s “Moby Dick”, which you’ve now sung more than any other person and sing again at the Los Angeles Opera in November 2015.
JHM: The role is really challenging. Vocally, it is in the same ballpark as Tristan and the Siegfrieds. Physically, it wrecks the body. Just standing on Ahab’s false leg all night can bring a grown man to tears. But I am thrilled every time I get to sing that role.
Wm: Speaking of the Siegfrieds. Although you covered Siegfried in Stephen Wadsworth’s 2009 “Ring” in Seattle, I saw your first Young Siegfried in Francesca Zambello’s “Ring” in San Francisco and later your Erik in Zambello’s Glimmerglass Festival production of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman”. What are your thoughts about doing Wagner, Zambello style?
[Below: Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris, left) has awakened Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme, right) in Francesca Zambello’s 2011 San Francisco Opera production of Wagner’s “Siegfried”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
JHM: I think if you are interested in acting, you can’t do a lot better than being directed by Cesca. I never had any better directing.
I loved doing her Young Siegfried. She pushed me to act, indeed to be young and strong and virile. She gets it out of you.
Wm: Which of the operas do you prefer between “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung?”
JHM: I actually prefer the “Götterdämmerung”. If you ask me what is the favorite moment in my career, I would say being in the Met “Götterdämmerung”, when Siegfried is lying dead on that stage, hearing the orchestra playing Siegfried’s funeral music. That’s the way I hope to be escorted out!
Wm: I think the second and third acts of “Götterdämmerung” are the two greatest acts in all of opera.
I’ll be seeing your Young Siegfried in Houston this coming April and I expect to see you at the Glimmerglass Festival next summer. I understand your family will be there.
JHM: Yes they will be. Meg, my wife, is a dancer and she will be dancing in the Glimmerglass production of Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” directed by Peter Kazaras. I met her in New York where she had been a dancer for years. Our son Cooper, who is six and starting school, will be with us at Glimmerglass.
[Below: the cover of Jay Hunter Morris’ “Diary of a Rednick Opera Zinger”; resized image.]
Wm: On a slightly different note, I have to put a plug in for your very funny book Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger.
JHM: There’s not much in it about opera. It evolved out of e-mails I sent to my family over the years about the messes I got myself into. It’s not high-brow literature, but I’m proud that it’s my voice. I’ve always liked being the storyteller.
Wm: I think it’s a great read.
JHM: I appreciate that.
Wm: And I appreciate the time we were able to spend this time with you today. Thank you.
JHM: My pleasure!