3:02pm

Fri February 10, 2012
Music Interviews

An Understudy Turned Star Shines On The Met Stage

Originally published on Sat February 11, 2012 9:46 am

Siegfried is a Norse hero, and one of the most demanding roles in all of opera. He slays dragons and has to sing about it — in Gotterdammerung, The Twilight of the Gods, the last opera in Wagner's Ring Cycle.

New York's Metropolitan Opera is currently presenting Gotterdammerung, and now starring in the famously demanding role of Siegfried is the singer who was the understudy for the part until just a few months back: Jay Hunter Morris, who not long ago was selling rollerblades in Central Park and handing out towels at gyms.

Morris was born and raised in Paris, Texas, where he sang in the choir of his Baptist church — his father was a minister there, his mother an organist. He also sang in garage bands in high school.

"But I didn't really have a fire or much of a passion for any of those things. Then my friend took me to see La Traviata in Dallas, and I was so mesmerized by the process," Morris says. "I kept asking my friend the whole night, 'Wait, are you sure they don't have microphones?' "

Morris hung around after the show that night, hoping to meet the cast members as they emerged from backstage. He managed to chat with one of them, the legendary tenor Alfredo Kraus.

"I asked him how I could find out if I actually have the voice for something like this," Morris says. "He pointed me to his friend, a vocal instructor. I had a lesson with him, and he said, 'Son, you might have a voice in there. It's going to take a little work, but if you want to come in and work with me, we'll see what we can do.'"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Siegfried is a Norse hero, one of the most demanding roles in all opera. He slays dragons and has to sing about it in "Gotterdammerung, The Twilight of the Gods," the last opera in Wagner's "Ring Cycle."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOTTERDAMMERUNG, THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS,")

JAY HUNTER MORRIS: (Singing) (Sung in foreign language)

SIMON: New York's Metropolitan Opera is currently presenting "Gotterdammerung." Now starring in the famously demanding role of Siegfried is the singer who was understudy for the part until just a few months ago. Jay Hunter Morris joins us from the Metropolitan Opera.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MORRIS: Scott, I'm so pleased to be with you. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: First of all, you were born in Paris.

MORRIS: Yes, sir. Paris, Texas. It's not exactly a breeding ground for opera singers or classical musicians, but I feel like the luckiest kid in the world to grow up down South and have the upbringing. There were not a whole lot of indications that it would lead me here to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.

SIMON: But how did you get to know opera?

MORRIS: Well, you know, I sang my whole life. My father was a Southern Baptist music minister, and my mom was the church organist, and I did all the things that every other kid in America does. I sang in the church choir and I sang in high school in the rock 'n' roll garage bands. And I wasn't really good at anything. I was OK at a lot of things.

I moved to Nashville after college and I was pursuing, you know, some gospel and some country music. I was very involved in ministry back in my youth but I didn't really have a fire or much of a passion for any of those things. And a friend took me to see "Traviata" in Dallas and I was so mesmerized by the whole process and that I kept asking my friend the whole night, now wait a minute, are you sure they don't have microphones? I mean we're in a 3,000-seat house and this lady is laying on her back singing. I don't understand. How can she use her voice like that? I was so fascinated by the whole process.

And, you know, I hung around afterwards and I talked to the cast as they were coming out. And if you can believe it, the tenor was Alfredo Kraus, who is, you know, a legendary singer, and a kind gentlemen, and he pointed me to a fellow that I went and had a voice lesson with. And Mr. Hayward said you know what? Son, you might have a voice in there. You know, it's going to take a little work, but if you want to come here and work with me we'll see what we can do. And it really has been my love for this art form that has propelled me forward, and it's thrilling.

SIMON: Let's listen to a little bit of you, if we could.

MORRIS: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOTTERDAMMERUNG, THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS,")

MORRIS: (Singing) (Sung in foreign language)

SIMON: What shape was your career in say, a couple of years ago?

MORRIS: My phone over the last five or six, seven years was learning not to ring. And I got, you know, a few things here and there. You know, I got some small roles but, you know, I felt like I was in the twilight and that things were quite possibly grinding to a halt.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

MORRIS: And I got an offer from Speight Jenkins a few years ago. He said, look, son, I know you probably don't know Sigfried but I think there's a chance that you could sing this well someday and I'm going to give you an offer. I'd like you to be the understudy here in Seattle when we do it. And I said, yes, sir, thank you very much. I would love to, because it was really the only card on the table and you just take it a day at a time and that's what I've been doing really for 23 years. I've been just taking little baby steps, getting a little better, getting a little stronger, getting my throat to obey me a little bit more everyday. So, here I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOTTERDAMMERUNG, THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS,")

MORRIS: (Singing) (Sung in foreign language)

Mr. Simon, let me tell you something, learning this thing is a nightmare. It is so long. It's so hard. And, you know, you might have picked up that German is not my first language so, you know, it was a massive undertaking and I just thought I would never learn it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOTTERDAMMERUNG, THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS,")

MORRIS: (Singing) (Sung in foreign language)

SIMON: You still follow country music?

MORRIS: Yes. Guilty as charged. Yes sir, I do. I listen to country and I listen to jazz and gospel too.

SIMON: I wonder, any chance for some for mixing genres in your career?

MORRIS: Let it be. In the words of John and Paul: let it be. Absolutely. You know, if I'm honest with you, I dream of having the opportunity to get to sing some country music again someday.

SIMON: Jay Hunter Morris, from the Metropolitan Opera, in New York City. He's currently playing Siegfried in Wagner's "Ring Cycle."

Thanks so much. Good luck to you Mr. Morris.

MORRIS: So nice to meet you, Scott. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "GOTTERDAMMERUNG, THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS,")

MORRIS: (Singing) (Sung in foreign language)

SIMON: The Met, broadcasting "Gotterdammerung" in HD - at select theaters around the world today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: