Sound Bites spotlights up-and-coming singers and conductors in the world of opera.
Sound Bites: Morgan Smith
Photographed by James Salzano in New York
Grooming by Affan Malik
© James Salzano 2014
Morgan Smith has rugged good looks, striking intelligence, charismatic stage presence and a powerful baritone of mingled velvet and steel — yet he considers himself a work in progress. “One of my biggest challenges has been thinking too much,” he says. “People say the best singers are those who are able to turn down the velocity of the wheels in their head — not to say I’m some brilliant mind, but I do have a very analytical, active mind, and I often feel I could be better at turning that off at the appropriate times.” But he notes that a singer has to earn the right to let go. “It’s so important for any artist — in order to be a vessel, in order to have the story speak through them, the technical ducks have to be in a row.”
Smith grew up in White Plains, playing cello, jazz bass and soccer (Columbia recruited him as a goalie), but a high-school production of Into the Woods opened the door to vocal studies, and by the time he had earned his Ivy League B.A., he was ready to pursue his master’s degree at Mannes. “And then what do you do after that?” he says. “You hurry up and wait for your pants to fit.”
Having apprenticed in Seattle, he settled there, singing eight operas in eight years. “In Seattle, I was able to take a deep breath, to have some peace of mind, to figure out what I wanted and where I was headed. Had I not moved to Seattle, I would not have gotten to do For a Look or a Touch.” Creating the central role of Manfred in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s dramatic work for baritone, men’s chorus and chamber ensemble, Smith says, “awakened me to a number of possibilities in terms of expression and the broad spectrum of what I had to offer emotionally. And it was through this experience that Moby-Dick was in the offing. It was incredible to get a phone call from Jake, saying, ‘I’ve got this really exciting new opera. I want you to have a big role in it.’”
Smith is grateful, too, for his three seasons as a fest artist in Leipzig. “It helps you get over yourself and accept the fact that, yes, this is what I do. There have been those who have expressed doubt about the feasibility of what I do — the IRS doesn’t understand it either! ‘How can you have all these expenses and still survive? You have to be dealing drugs or something.’ But it speaks volumes to have the government sign your paycheck.”
Smith’s riveting performance as Starbuck in Moby-Dick in 2010 helped cement his reputation as a singer of contemporary music. This season’s assignments have included Tadeusz in The Passenger (Houston Grand Opera, Lincoln Center Festival) and Audebert in Silent Night (Fort Worth). While he revels in the freedom such unfamiliar repertoire gives him, he also looks forward to the chance to “sit in a warm saddle” in the coming season with roles such as Escamillo (Vancouver and Pittsburgh), Don Giovanni (Austin) and Marcello (San Diego).
LOUISE T. GUINTHER
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