What is it like to win a Grammy? According to tenor Jay Hunter Morris, the star of The Dallas Opera's current production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die tote Stadt, "It's the most crazy, good thing ever!"
"I feel like five years ago not a soul on this earth, myself included, would've believed that I would win a Grammy," he confesses. "It really is just the most unexpected, coolest thing ever." And where does he keep it? In his living room in Roswell, Georgia, of course.
In 2011, Morris was tapped as an understudy to sing the title role in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Wagner's Siegfried when the scheduled performer fell ill. This was a big moment in his career, and Morris nailed the massively difficult role. He has since sung Siegfried in two consecutive Ring Cycles at the Met, the recording of one of which won him a 2013 Grammy.
Jay Hunter Morris grew up in Paris, Texas. Like so many small-town Texans, he grew up in the church. "My dad was a Southern Baptist music minister," he says, "and my mom was a church organist. I was just like every other teenager. I played in a rock and roll garage band and sang in the church choir and the high school choir. I was my daddy's boy."
Morris didn't grow up hearing or singing opera. When he graduated from high school, he headed to Baylor for his undergrad where he studied music and planned to follow in his father's footsteps and work in church ministry. He laughs when he describes how Waco felt like a "really big city" at the time. "I was very involved in church work and the ministry there," he says. "I sang happy hours for my spending money at the Holiday Inn in Waco. I was extremely mediocre," he laughs again and adds, "really on the bottom side of mediocre."
At 25, Morris attended a production of La traviata at The Dallas Opera. It was a turning point. "I was completely enchanted and taken in by the art form," he recalls. "I had been chasing a lot of things that I was not very good at, and in this art form I found a passion. To this day I'm still so intrigued by how people do this with their voices -- that we sing over a hundred-piece orchestra into a 4,000-seat house with no microphone -- that's not something you hear every day. I was an OK singer in the things that I did, but in the back of my mind, I felt I wanted to try and be great at something. I'm still chasing that."
For Morris, it was a long and bumpy road from small town choir kid to the stages of the world's most famous opera houses. When I spoke with him in his dressing room backstage at the Winspear opera house during rehearsals for Die tote Stadt, he was candid about the low points in his career.
"On my 40th birthday I was living at home in Paris, Texas, with my parents," he recalls. "I didn't have any jobs. I didn't have any money, I didn't have an agent. I didn't have a girl. And I didn't have a whole lot of prospects. My parents sat me down and gave me 'the talk' and said, 'Look, we know this has been fun and you've had this great operatic ride, but you don't have an IRA or any health insurance or an income.' I told them I had to figure this out. I said, 'If I keep practicing -- if I just keep practicing -- one of these days I'm going to get to a place where my throat will obey me and I can do my best work.' I knew I still had my best work ahead of me."
That relentless drive and effort has paid off for Morris. He is acutely aware of the amount of hard work it has taken -- and still takes -- to sing the genre's biggest tenor roles. "I love that this far into the game I am getting to do the great tenor roles with great orchestras," he says.
I ask him what it feels like to have reached his prime and he agrees that at this point, that's exactly where he is. "I'm singing so much better. I'm acting so much better," he says. "The secret to singing Seigfried and Tristan and Paul (Die tote Stadt) and Ahab and Peter Grimes and Otello is that I have to sing really well all the time. It's not getting easier, I'm very unhappy to report. There's no coasting. It requires so much. There's a lot at stake not just for me but for the people who hire me."
But if anyone is up for the task, Morris certainly is. His career, with its highlights and low points, has prepared him for these big roles, and he oozes enthusiasm for the opportunities he has worked so long and so hard to attain.
"I wouldn't change a thing," he says. "You know, I'm always very cognizant about what I'm into at the moment. The 'Ring' is over and now this is the moment."
Morris' posture and expressions change when he begins to discuss the role he's currently playing at The Dallas Opera. His excitement swells palpably.
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"Paul is probably one of the top five most challenging roles out there," he says about his part in Die tote Stadt. It's really a big, long, loud, soft, beautiful, maniacal sing. If you're lucky -- and I am -- if you manage to survive in this business for 25 years, then you get to be a grownup and sing these really big, terrifying parts. That's kind of where I'm at now. I get to do Seigfried and Tristan and Ahab. Paul is one of the ones you hold on for and you hope you get a shot to sing."
Morris' eyes grow bright and intense and little crazy as he leans towards me. "You want to know why Paul is so great?"
He pauses dramatically and then whispers excitedly, "Because he's CRAAAAAZZZY! Because he sees ghosts! Because he talks to his dead wife. Because he tries to find a really pretty girl with red hair that looks like his dead wife and then chokes her with his dead wife's braid. How fun is that!?"
You can see Morris play Paul at The Dallas Opera this week. Snag tickets here.