James Morris has fashioned a remarkable career by using his basso cantante to reveal the humanity behind operas' gods, kings and sinister men of strength. BRIAN KELLOW pays homage to the bass-baritone, who this year receives an OPERA NEWS Award.
Photographed by Beth Bergman as Wotan in Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan Opera, 1993
© Beth Bergman 2014
Is Don Carlo's "Ella giammai m'amò" the most profoundly wrenching aria in all of Italian opera? In the theater, I have heard some galvanizing performances of Filippo's lament, but few have had the impact of James Morris's at the 1993 Richard Tucker Foundation gala at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. Morris gave a riveting account of Filippo's anguish at facing the desolate emptiness of his marriage to Elisabetta. "She never loved me." While many interpretations of "Ella giammai" heavy-pedal the pathos, Morris gave us a man who understands fully the depth and breadth of the power of the throne yet is undone by the powerlessness of his own heart. Throughout his career, Morris has excelled at conveying to audiences the weakness and vulnerability that lurk within authority figures. Think of his Enrico VIII in Anna Bolena, who has practically lost his reason, thanks to his lust for Giovanna Seymour; his Claggart in Billy Budd, showing us the fear and paranoia that lie behind the corrosive evil; the depth of feeling of his Wotan, who would surely make a better mortal than a god. When we think of this artist, we may think first of the rich gleam of his superb basso cantante, but it's the humanity of his portrayals that feeds our memory of him. Few singers illuminate the frailty inside strong men better than James Morris.
His career, like so many, happened almost in spite of him. His voice announced itself while he was still quite young, but growing up in Baltimore, he initially wanted to pursue medicine. Eventually, he came to terms with his considerable singing gifts and received a solid music education at the University of Maryland, the Peabody Conservatory, Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts and, perhaps most significantly, as a private student of Rosa Ponselle, who taught him how to dissect a role and infuse it with maximum drama. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1971, as the King in Aida, with Lucine Amara and James McCracken. His progress was sensible and steady, as he graduated from small parts to good supporting roles in Verdi operas. He became an integral part of the Joan Sutherland–Richard Bonynge traveling company, excelling as Giorgio in I Puritani, among many other roles. In January 1975, he sang his first Don Giovanni at the Met, with Edda Moser and Kiri Te Kanawa, and he was closely identified with the role for many years, though he eventually believed that too many Giovannis and Figaros had led him to sing with a croony sound that was not properly supported. By 1978, when many observers had come to dismiss him as a proficient but workmanlike singer, Morris experienced a career high when he sang Claggart in the Met premiere of Billy Budd, in John Dexter's fine staging. At the time, he felt most comfortable in French and Italian roles, telling OPERA NEWS's Stephen Wadsworth, "The only two German things I would like to work on are the Dutchman and some of Wotan."
He did work on them, and in less than a decade, largely under the guidance of James Levine, he had emerged as the preeminent American Dutchman and Wotan of his generation. Morris had studied Wotan with the great Hans Hotter, and his grounding in bel canto meant that he gave the role an elegant sense of musical line that many more aggressively sung Wotans could not command; he caused a sensation when he sang it at San Francisco Opera in 1985. As Wotan, Morris never seemed to be pushing: his sound was perfectly focused and his dramatic intent always fully present. Who could forget the tenderness of Wotan's feelings for Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, or the elegiac quality he brought to the Wanderer's scene with Siegfried? Around this time, Will Crutchfield wrote in OPERA NEWS, "Something has been happening to James Morris, and watching it happen has been one of the great pleasures of the last few seasons."
Being a world-class Wotan is a trap of sorts; in the mid-1990s, Morris complained to OPERA NEWS's Paul Thomason that once you've had a major success in the role, it's all any company wants you to sing. He began insisting that theaters that wanted him for Wotan also had to engage him for Italian roles such as Scarpia or Filippo. Certainly Scarpia was a role he returned to again and again, giving his performance the sexual charge of his physical stature and relative youthfulness.
Among his colleagues, Morris's professional reputation has remained high through the years. Those who have worked with him mention not only his dedication and keen musicianship but his lack of pretense and great sense of fun. He is, at heart, a fan — someone who, for all his sterling accomplishments, is still dazzled by being around talent. At a music-industry dinner not long ago, Morris told me about his good fortune in being cast as Macheath in the 1982 Decca recording of John Gay's Beggar's Opera — alongside Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa and Angela Lansbury. Many years later, he was in the audience for a show and spotted Lansbury. "I went over, knelt down and talked to her," he remembered. "I was still unable to believe that I'd ever had the chance to work with someone as great as she is. I'm not sure she remembered me, but she was nice enough to pretend that she did."
In recent years, Morris has segued into character parts, which he invests with the same integrity and team spirit that he once brought to his leading roles. For Met audiences, in particular, he remains the kind of welcome presence that some of the golden-age character players once were for movie audiences. We remember his development from a promising young talent into a world-class headliner, and how he took artistic hurdles that may have astonished even him. James Morris continues to live a life in the theater, and we are grateful.
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