Long-Term Investment Pays Off : Jay Hunter Morris

If you’re looking for a recipe for success, perhaps consider following the example of dramatic tenor Jay Hunter Morris. Mix equal parts talent and positive attitude, and then sprinkle liberally with time in the practice room. Born in Paris, Texas, the son of a Baptist music minister father and church organist mother, Morris credits his parents with instilling in him “the lasting belief that I can achieve anything my heart desires.” The more one learns about the singer’s work ethic and outlook, the less mysterious his success seems to be. A singer who works hard, seeks out the best possible help, and is consistently available and ready when the opportunity comes begins to seem like a cake with the right ingredients that has been mixed and baked at the right temperature, almost guaranteed to rise.

There is nothing anyone could write that would be more eloquent and to the point than the words Morris strings together about himself. His book, Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger, began as his personal e-mails and letters to friends and family and ended up as a collection of stories that he hopes is “equal parts auto-bio, inspiration, and unrepentant potty humor.” The intro on his website offers candid revelations of the kind you won’t find in the average singer’s bio: that sometimes he “wants to quit;” that after 21 years in the business, he is “still trying;” and that having the privilege to sing with a symphony orchestra still amazes him—“all those sounds, those people coming together.” He’s currently at work on his second book—and with a jam-packed calendar of engagements for major roles with major houses through 2017, he should not be at a loss for material.

Morris’s most publicized moment in the limelight came when he stepped into the role of Siegfried at the Met in a new production in the fall of 2011, after his “career had fallen into the shade, if not the darkness” (his candid words again), and later that same year he was similarly promoted when another tenor backed out of the massive role of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick at San Francisco Opera. Both of these productions have been broadcast and are available on DVD. The fact that success on a grand scale came relatively late to the dramatic tenor, who trained at Juilliard and performed for over a year on Broadway in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, may explain why he seems to be pulling off one of the rarest feats of all in any field—namely, enjoying his success.

In rehearsal with Dallas Opera, Morris was playing another important role, that of “Mr. Mom” while his wife, actress and dancer, Meg Gillentine, was in rehearsal for Mother Courage and Her Children starring Kathleen Turner at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Our conversation began with his current operatic challenge, the role of Paul in Korngold’s Die tote Stadt.

This is such a demanding role. What are you finding to be the greatest joy or challenge with it?

One and the same. The greatest joy is that I get to explore such a broad spectrum of colors, of options. I rage. I’m crazy. I kill somebody. I talk to a braid of hair. I’m just as nutty as I can be at times—and then I turn around on the very same page and sing these gorgeous, sometimes very transparent, long lines that are really high. It’s so challenging.

I’ve been studying this piece for a year and a half, and that means that I’ve been visualizing how I expect this to go, the way I expect it to feel in my body, and how I expect it to sound, and how I’m going to play the character—and then all of a sudden, you go from all of that preparation, you walk into the room, and it’s time to sing it. It’s a very consistent element in my process. I do all this planning, and it takes a little while for the vision and the reality to come together as one. For those first couple weeks it’s like, “Wait a minute . . . this isn’t how I want it to feel.”

I’m glad this came up right away, the point about visualization. You’ve had some major understudy gigs—and with those jobs, you don’t get the stage time. How do you get into the head of being able to do that without hours and hours in the room with the conductor?

Visualization, if you will . . . if I can be a hippy for a minute.

I’m talking to you from Berkeley, Calif., so, yes, you can.

It’s the cornerstone of my preparation. I do 98 percent of planning and strategizing in my head to the actual 2 percent that I actually flog my voice with roles like Tristan, Siegfried.

Or Die tote Stadt.

Or Paul. It really is a technique that was born out of necessity for me because of my roles understudying. When I started learning Siegfried, we were broke, and I didn’t have many jobs, and we had a baby, and I couldn’t afford to fly to New York and have somebody teach me. So I had to learn it on my own and I had to plan it on my own. Then you go to the jobs and you get some rehearsal. But the great majority of the time, I spent my time watching the pros out there doing it and imagining what it was going to be like when I got my turn, planning what I would do. So it was born out of that necessity.

My wife Meg likes to joke that I learned Siegfried in bed, because we had this baby that didn’t sleep, and I lay in bed and studied all the time. That was where I learned it, sitting there with that score for countless hours. When you get into these heavier, longer roles that are so demanding, you just can’t flog your throat for hours on end. You have to be really, really smart. I learned that from my experience and from talking to the people that I respect and asking them. This is what the big boys do.

I love these stories about you—that you just walk up to Alfredo Kraus or Ben Heppner and you say, “Hey, I like what you’re doing. Who do you work with? How do you do it? Can you give me any tips?” And that has led you to some great, important relationships.

Every show that I ever did, I was a nuisance to anybody that was worth a dime. Anybody that could sing, I was at their dressing room, knocking on their door, picking their brain, talking to them about how they do this. Not only singing. But how do you negotiate family? How do you negotiate being a good human being, when we’re all so self-involved?

But before we leave the subject of visualization, there’s something very important that I [need to] say out loud. It’s not a miracle. It’s not like I can imagine myself sounding like Ben [Heppner] or Plácido. I can’t imagine or visualize myself into a new vocal technique. All I can do is take the tools that I’ve been working on, the skills that I’ve developed for 25 years, and I can imagine them at their best. And that’s what I visualize is me doing my best work. And the reason that I know what that’s going to feel like is [that] I’ve done it in the practice room a thousand times. It’s not like all of a sudden, one day, I can sing Siegfried and I’m a thousand times better than I was the year before. It’s not like that.

I got a chance to do my best. If you don’t get the chance, you don’t know. You don’t know until you get the shot and the chance to put all of your artwork on display. And in that area, I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I feel like I’m just now poised to do my very best work. I couldn’t do it at 40. I couldn’t do it at 35. I had—for me, not for anybody else—I had to be a real serious grown-up, before I could do my best work.

Let me ask you a technical question. People talk about the uniqueness of the upper part of the tenor instrument, and Paul is a very high role. What’s your understanding of that range?

My understanding of that is that I better sing really, really well all of the time. Not some of the time. That’s been my answer when people say, “How did you survive Siegfried?” or Tristan, or Ahab? Ahab was really hard. It was a really challenging part. And the answer is I have to sing my very best all the time—and if I don’t, I’m going to pay, like every other singer.
I think you’re probably right; we [tenors] do have a unique set of challenges, hurdles. There’s no doubt that the grown-up tenor voice, my voice at 50—did I say 50? I meant 40 [laughing]. The grown-up tenor voice is so different than it was 10 years ago or five years ago. We all know the saying “Life is all a negotiation.” I am constantly negotiating with my throat trying to find a way to keep it in submission so it will obey me, so it will express the color, sounds, and volumes that I need it to, and it’s just never easy!

After a role like Siegfried—Wagner or a heavy repertoire like that—how many days off would you have, ideally?

At least two days. Listen, it’s not just the throat. It’s the whole body. Especially when you’re singing Wagner, we engage every muscle. Every fiber, every chakra, every spiritual portal that you have when you are putting on a piece of music like that is engaged.

I’d like you to talk a little bit about what you call “the protective mode.” You’ve spoken about how much solitude there is involved in being a singer—that you need to go into this space that’s your own—and you obviously need to rest a lot, you need to not talk a lot. How do you do that gracefully, with family, with friends?

Not very well. I hurt a lot of feelings. And, luckily, most of my friends and family have been on this journey with me a long time and so they know and they get it. Some people don’t. But there’s so much at stake. Not just for me, but for the people that hire me. I have to protect their investment.

For me, it’s the cocoon. It’s having a time and a period to focus on nothing else. And study it. Go over the things I have to do better. And be quiet. You know, I’m much better at singing than I am at talking. One place I cannot go is a loud room. I lose my voice talking in there in 10 minutes. So I have to be clever. There are a lot of people that don’t. I’ve got friends that go out there and live it up, go to all these donor things. There’s a balance that has got to be met. But the bottom line is when the curtain goes down, I’ve got to feel like I have done my best singing.

You did have that experience of Broadway, eight shows a week. I’m wondering about your acting approach and working with Zoe Caldwell. I think some singers are taught in some ways not to have too much emotion. If you have too much emotion, it’s going to mess up your technique. How do you feel about handling, say, Paul, Peter Grimes, or Ahab? These are emotional guys.

I think that the people that believe that if they go too far with their emotions that their vocal technique will come undone, they’re probably right. It probably will. So, that’s why they have to stay within that boundary. You’ve got to be solid. That’s the thing that William [Bill Neill, Morris’s teacher of many years] taught me over the years and hammered into me—to give me a technique that will let me be as crazy as I can be, that will let me be as sad, as happy, or as joyful. Our body, our throat, our vocal technique has to be a slave to the presentation. Otherwise, there’s a disconnect.

We have to be able to go all the way. I wasn’t able to do it at 35. I wasn’t able to do it at 45. You’ve got to earn your place. You’ve got to know what you’re doing when you step into those big emotional things. If you’re gonna let the dogs all the way out, you’ve got to know that you’re going to have a voice left at the end of the night.

I like the way you use the word “song.” You’ve said about Siegfried, “That’s a long song.” Part of that I think is that you’re from Texas, and that’s the way you talk about it—but I wonder if you also do that on purpose to keep in mind that fundamentally you’re a story teller, and you’ve got to deliver the song.

I tried for a lot of years, often at the behest of others, to clean up the way I talked, the way I looked. I had someone very early on tell me that I shouldn’t speak at auditions because no one’s ever going to hire me, they’re never going to take me seriously, and that hurt my feelings and I believed it for a long time. And I don’t believe that any more. Just because I don’t come from Germany doesn’t mean I can’t sing in German. Just because I’m not Russian doesn’t mean I can’t sing Lensky. We work at this, we study this.

One of my mantras—and I’ve got several that I put on poster boards all around me when I’m doing a show like this—is “It’s only singing.” You know, nobody’s going to have a heart attack if I cack or if I didn’t put a good enough umlaut on that vowel. No medical attention is gonna be required. Everybody’s gonna be OK. Just relax into it and live and enjoy the moment.

One final question, I’m curious if it bothered you to be written about a little bit like an overnight sensation when you’ve been working so hard for decades—or were you just too happy to worry about it.

I’ve learned this: everybody’s got their version. You hear little snippets and you build something. That’s nonsense, of course. I’ve had a great ride. I sang Manon Lescaut with Carol Vaness. I’ve shared the stage with so many. I sang Stolzing in Die Meistersinger with Jim Morris and Thomas Allen. I have been around some of the great artists. I sang in Russian with Anna Netrebko, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Olga Borodina and me!

I’ve had this incredibly dense wealth of experiences. Not just in German. I sang the Italian lovers for a long time, and I sang the Czech stuff and a lot of new rep for a lot of years. And I’ve also been 40 and broke and living with my mama in Paris, Texas. And that’s what makes the ride so sweet. I can’t compare it to anybody else. But it makes me swim in gratitude for every good thing that I have.

Anything else on your mind that we haven’t talked about yet?

I can’t talk about the ride I’ve been on without talking about Meg and Cooper. At the end of the day, it’s just singing. As passionate as I get about it, at the end of the day, my great love is my little boy and my girl. At the core of my being, I can’t talk to you for an hour without mentioning that I know that my singing is going to be forgotten, my acting is going to be forgotten, but my little boy is going to, hopefully, live a legacy of knowing what it’s like to be a good man—and that is more important than any of this stuff, for me.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.