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.” 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, including thousands in more than 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 breakthrough Met performances, he had considered stopping altogether 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 Jan. 27 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 arias.
In a recent phone conversation, Morris spoke in his native Texas twang about his Met “Siegfried,” the years leading up to that event, and next weekend’s concert.
Q: What was it like having to prepare for “Siegfried” so quickly?
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 of singing Wagnerian roles?
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.
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?
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. Who wouldn’t feel lucky with such a run?
Q: How do you balance your career with your wife and 3-year-old son?
I always put them first. They are very supportive and come with me whenever they can.
Q: Is this the first time you are singing the role of Siegmund (Siegfried’s father) in “Die Walküre”?
Yes … Every tenor likes to sing it – glorious melodies, a great duet – and it’s short!