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Full Circle

F. PAUL DRISCOLL talks to tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who had a last-minute success in the title role of the Met's new Siegfried in October. This month, Morris sings Siegfried in The Met: Live in HD presentation of Götterdämmerung.

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Production photo of Morris in Siegfried at the Met: Beth Bergman
© Beth Bergman 2012
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© Beth Bergman 2012

When Jay Hunter Morris created Tony Candolino in the original cast of Master Class on Broadway, in 1995, few would have predicted a future for him as a Wagnerian.But the Paris, Texas native had a genuine heldentenortriumph this past October, when he stepped into the title role in the Met's new staging of Siegfried — on less than a week's notice. This month, Morris is back at the Met as Siegfried in the company's new Götterdämmerung, and he returns to New York in spring for performances of the full Ring cycle.

JAY HUNTER MORRIS: Man, as you can imagine, this has been a pretty crazy ride this year.

OPERA NEWS: Let's talk about how the crazy ride started. When did you find out that you were going to be stepping into the Met's production of Siegfried?

JHM: We really ought to probably back up to San Francisco [Opera]. That really was when everything turned around for me. I showed up there in — I think it was February or March [2011] — to be the understudy [for Siegfried]. And on day two or three of rehearsal, I got the promotion there. [Director] Francesca [Zambello] really went to bat for me and said, "I want him, and we should give him a chance." And so I got to do that whole rehearsal period — and that was so valuable for me. Now previous to that, I was the understudy [for Siegfried] at Seattle Opera [in 2009], and I was the understudy [for Siegfried] at Los Angeles Opera [in 2010]. So I've sort of been working on Siegfried for — I guess the last three and a half years. It's been just about the only thing I've done.

Speight Jenkins at Seattle Opera was the first guy that gave me a job working on Siegfried. He said, "You're going to be great at this someday — I'm going to give you a chance to learn it." And you can imagine what an enormous undertaking learning it was. My gosh, I wanted to hang myself. I just thought I would never learn it all. [Laughs.] In Seattle, I got to watch Stig Andersen, who's done it a lot. And then I got to be the understudy in L.A., and I got to watch John Treleaven, who's done it a lot. And I learned so much from the two of them. When I got my turn in San Francisco, and I got to really work at it, I was able to build my confidence. I thought, "Gosh, you know what? I can do this." 

When I got to New York [to cover Siegfried in the Met production], I had built a real base of confidence. So when the call came the week before the [Siegfried] opening, I don't know if I felt absolutely ready — but I felt prepared. Peter Gelb looked me in the eyes — forgive me, but he and I had a come-to-Jesus moment — and he said, "Are you really going to be able to do this?" And I said, "Yeah. I can do this." 

On Friday afternoon, I had a short little rehearsal with Maestro Luisi, so he could see if he liked what I brought to the table. [Laughs.] We didn't have to work very long, actually. He worked on some things with me and showed me what he wanted, and I got him. I understand his style and the way he leads. I felt really good about the rehearsal. And I think he did, too. 

So I was told, "You're going to do the rehearsal on Saturday" — which was an orchestra rehearsal onstage — "and you're going to do the final dress on Monday. And then we open on Thursday." So I had two rehearsals, both with orchestra and onstage. And there we were.

ON: Talk to me about Götterdämmerung, which you have coming up in January and February.

JHM: I did not do that one in San Francisco. I did just Siegfried there.

ON: But you did cover Götterdämmerung in Los Angeles and in Seattle?

JHM: Yes. And because Stig and John were singing both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, I actually got to rehearse Götterdämmerung a good bit in both Seattle and Los Angeles. In fact, in Los Angeles, I got to sing the final dress rehearsal with orchestra. So believe it or not, Götterdämmerung is actually a much less frightening [laughs] opera for me than Siegfried.

ON: Is it much less frightening simply because of your experience with it, or do you think that it's any easier from a singing standpoint?

JHM: I think it's easier. Here's the thing. When you look at the magnitude [laughs] of just the number of words in both operas — there's not really very many easy pages in these scores. It's all complex, and it's all very challenging. So when I started learning it, I said to myself, "Okay, you know what? I need to find my favorite part, the part that is going to be, you know, the most joyful for me to work on, and I need to start with that, so that I walk into this process with a good feeling."

And I love that death scene in Götterdämmerung. That, to me, is going to be one of my favorite things to ever get to sing. And so that was the first thing I learned. When I started to understudy that role, I had said to myself, "I hope that someday I get to sing this scene with an orchestra. Just that would be such a pleasure for me." And I got to sing it with orchestra at a rehearsal in Seattle, and then I got to do the final dress rehearsal in Los Angeles. 

I'll be honest with you — over the last couple of years, things had sort of dried up for me professionally. I had only a few jobs in my immediate future. When you look into the face of "I might not be paid to sing again — I might have to find something else to do," and then you have the opportunities that I've been given this year, it's beyond amazing. [Laughs.] I still cannot believe that I got to sing Siegfried at the Met. I mean, that whole week and a half or two weeks there was just a blur for me. I feel like I was on an adrenaline rush day and night. It was so surreal. And, you know, the hardest thing for me in those two weeks were the nights I wasn't singing — when I'm sitting there, waiting and thinking and waiting and thinking, "Remember what you have to sing tomorrow, fella." That's when it was scary. But once the music started, when I was in the character and in the music, it was a joyful, exuberant experience. I had so much fun onstage. [Laughs.] And then I'd walk offstage, or I'd look out at the house, and I'd think, "Oh my gosh, I'm at the Met! Are you kidding me?"

ON: Do you have enough perspective to contrast the four production styles in the four Ring cycles you've done since 2009? You've been through the gamut, from Stephen Wadsworth in Seattle to Achim Freyer at LAO to Francesca Zambello, and now the Robert Lepage at the Met. They have such different ways of approaching the cycle. 

JHM: I certainly loved Francesca's, because I got to rehearse, and I got to be a part of the creation process. But they were all valuable to me — I liked them all. To go from the traditional, beautiful, natural, realistic production in Seattle to the abstract one with Mr. Freyer allows you to see the need for both. They can't all be the same. They should be contrasting and different. 

By watching John and Stig — and then getting to do it myself — I learned what I believe is the central core of this character. You can't play everything there is to him — if you try and play everything, then the audience doesn't get very much of him. They get a lot of you that way, but not much of Siegfried. I wanted to make the choice to highlight a few things I believed about this guy and that I want to use to tell this story. 

ON: What are the things that you think are most important about the character of Siegfried?

JHM: His innocence. That's not easy for a grown man to play — Siegfried's innocence and youthfulness and naïveté. That's a hard one. It's so easy to play him as a brat, as an unlikable teenager. And you know what? Then nobody cares. Why would an audience want to sit there for five hours being told a story about some juvenile delinquent? I don't think that that is very interesting. The most interesting choice is for me to find the youthful, naïve, innocent qualities that I possessed as a young man, and try and capture those and use them to tell the story.

Certainly in the opera Siegfried, I'm very fascinated with the arc of the character's growth — the difference from who he is when he walks into that first scene and who he is when he holds Brünnhilde at the very last moment. He grows up before the audience's eyes — they get to watch that and experience him becoming not only a man but a hero. He's fearless — he has faced the dragon and Mime and Wotan and has conquered them. 

I relish getting out there and trying to be youthful. [Laughs.] It's not easy for me. I'm still aching. My body still hurts from trying to move quickly. I don't move quickly in real life. [Laughs.] My wife will tell you that for sure. To portray somebody who moves with ease and with strength and power and agility — for me, that's acting.

ON: But acting's nothing new for you — you got one of your earliest breaks acting in Master Class on Broadway opposite Zoe Caldwell.

JHM: Here's something crazy, as a complete sidebar. The day of the Siegfried Live in HD broadcast, I was staying on the Upper West Side. I wanted to get some fresh air before we started singing at noon, so I got some coffee, and I went to the Juilliard bookstore that morning. I bought a little shirt for my son that said "Juilliard Class of 2030." And when I was at the checkout line, there were copies of Master Class for sale. I haven't seen it, I haven't read it, you know, since then. And I picked one up, and I thought, "You know what? I'm going to buy this." 

And I took it home, and I read through my scene, and also through the monologue that Maria does at the end. And I was so moved. I can't believe I got to do that for so long — I was with Master Class for about three years. When I look back over my life — not just my career but my life — that was one of the most magical times. I was so fortunate to get to be a part of that. Right after I got to do the Siegfried in San Francisco, I went to Adelaide, Australia, to sing Captain Ahab in Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick. And the director of that production was Leonard Foglia.

ON: Who directed Master Class.

JHM: That's right. [Laughs.] And I haven't worked with him since then — I haven't hardly seen him since then. But this Moby-Dick is his production. And we got to have a little reunion this summer when I got to sing Ahab. We were supposed to do it again in San Diego in February — but I'm going to be singing Götterdämmerung in New York instead!  spacer

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