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Jay Hunter Morris
Associated Press/Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera
Jay Hunter Morris

Confessions of a redneck opera singer

Music | Jay Hunter Morris followed his faith from Christian music to the Met, becoming one of the nation’s premiere classical performers

Jay Hunter Morris took the opera world by storm in 2011 and 2012 by performing the role of Siegfried in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner’s 17-hour The Ring Cycle. The opera, and his role in it, are widely considered to be the most demanding ever written. The production was broadcast live to movie theaters and on radio, and subsequently played on television. It made Morris an international star.

It was a remarkable high point for this self-described “redneck opera singer” from Paris, Texas. Morris grew up as the son of a Southern Baptist music minister who died when young Morris was 13. He graduated from Baylor and had begun a career in the Christian music industry in Nashville, Tenn., when he saw his first opera, at age 25. It changed the trajectory of his life. He moved to Dallas and got a graduate degree in music performance while serving as a music minister at Prestonwood Baptist Church. From there, he spent two years at Juilliard before beginning his new career. He now lives in Atlanta with his wife, actress-singer-dancer Meg Gillentine, and their young son, Cooper, born in 2009. 

You didn’t even see an opera until you were an adult. What made you think it was something you might be good at? I’ll tell something that I don’t say very often, but I’ve always had a voice in my head and in my heart that compelled me to find something to be great at. I believe that was from my father. So there’s always been this driving force in my life to find something to excel at. I certainly never dreamed it would be opera. But I put the ship in motion. My mom always said that the good Lord can guide a ship that’s in motion much more easily than one that’s sitting still, so I put myself in motion. 

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So what was your big break? I studied and worked and got myself, most importantly, in the practice room and tried to figure this out. The biggest turning point for me, that got me to the Ring Cycle in New York City, came in Seattle. I’ve sung there for many years. Speight Jenkins is the man who runs the company there, and he gave me the opportunity to become the understudy for Siegfried in 2009. He said, “I want you to have a look at this and tell me if you want to do it. I went home and looked at it and fell off my chair. It’d take me forever to learn it. It’s so complex. It’s so long. There are so many words, and none of them are in English!

Yet you took on the challenge. Why? You know, I didn’t want to do this. But a lot of really smart people, a lot of the really best musicians in the world, believe this is the greatest work of musical art ever written. I didn’t have any other job offers at the time and my wife and I had our first child on the way and if I wanted to keep singing, I had no choice. I had to learn this role and I had to take on this job assignment as the understudy. So, I went to Seattle to watch a man who’s really good at it. I sat out in the audience and I learned from him and I planned in my mind how I would do this, if I ever got my chance. I got another opportunity, to understudy in Los Angeles. Then I got to be the understudy in San Francisco. So, I spent a few years watching pros do it and listening to how they negotiated the tough vocals, and watching how they portrayed him on stage. I planned how I would be Siegfried, when the call came. That call came in San Francisco in a new production there, and I felt prepared.

And then something unexpected happened. The guy who was supposed to sing Seigfried for the Met, tenor great Gary Lehman, got sick. One of my good friends, a colleague, a great singer. He got sick. We’re all only human and we do get sick from time to time. So, Peter Gelb, director at the Met, came to me and said, “Can you really do this?” It was being broadcast into movie theaters all over the world. So he looked me in the face and said, “There’s a lot at stake here. Can you really do this?” Because of all the preparation, because I’ve been doing this for 20 years, because I’ve been preparing myself vocally, because I’m at the place I am age-wise—I was 48 years old at the time—every piece of the puzzle had fit so perfectly together. I was able to look him in the face and say, “Yeah, I’m ready. I can do this.” And he gave me the chance. We didn’t have many rehearsals before those cameras were rolling. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. So far it’s worked out really well for me.

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