The first thing to know about Jay Hunter Morris, one of the world’s leading opera singers, is that he hails from Paris—not the City of Light, but the small town in Eastern Texas. His roots have been an integral part of his musical development from his upbringing in gospel to his current status as a renowned operatic tenor. They even provided fodder for his autobiography, Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger, which revolves around self-proclaimed potty humor. But according to Morris, his story is not unique.
“I’m not the only country boy that is an opera singer,” he says. “There are a lot of us. Some of our most famous American singers are from Texas.”
The common denominator between most singers from small towns, he says, is church.
“Many of us grew up singing in church and in choir and it makes you want to study voice,” he says. “Once you get exposed to [singing], it’s easy to catch the fever.”
Morris came to the church choir by way of his dad, who was a Southern Baptist minister. By the age of 14, Morris set his sights on becoming a country or gospel singer. He studied music at Baylor University and moved to Nashville, but he wasn’t catching that big break. At the age of 25, he attended a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Dallas Opera while he was visiting Texas, and he was captivated.
“I was so perplexed and puzzled and fascinated by the fact that these people can project their voices into, you know, sometimes a 4,000-seat house with no microphone,” he says. “I marvel that we are able to sing over a 100-piece orchestra with them all playing as loud as they can and there’s one person with their voice singing and you can hear them.”
From that point forward, he began a pursuit for the perfect vocal performance.
“It’s a crazy thing that opera singers do, that classical singers do. It is not natural; it is very much a technique that was borne of necessity,” he says. “Hundreds of years ago…opera was probably the most popular art form in the world. It’s hard to imagine but that’s not what only the elite of society but the common man, that’s where they went on Saturday nights. They didn’t go to the movies; they went to the opera, they went to the theater. So singers had to learn to project their voice into these big auditoriums.”
He was so inspired that he enrolled in Southern Methodist University’s graduate program in music to try his hand at the craft.
“It was certainly not in the cards,” he says. “No one saw it coming, least of all me. But I love this art form and I am such a fan of opera and theater.”
Post-graduation, he was invited to study at Juilliard, which led to a slew of supporting roles in operas.
“You’ve got to get some really good breaks and I have gotten some of the biggest breaks that any singer could ever hope for and so I’m very grateful for those,” Morris says. “I know very well that I could be doing something else.”
One of the big breaks included being cast in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, a Tony Award-winning play presented as a master class by famous opera diva Maria Callas. Since then, Morris has received numerous prestigious parts through the San Francisco Opera, the Dallas Opera, Sydney Opera House and the Metropolitan Opera. Perhaps his biggest break came in 2011, when he was the understudy for Wagner’s Ring Cycle at The Met.
“I was the understudy and sort of at the 11th hour I got to take over the role and it was a new production that was broadcast into cinemas all over the world,” he recalls. “And I played Siegfried in an opera called Siegfried and that was sort of like the kid at the end of the bench getting to step up to bat in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded.”
Throughout his 28-year study, he’s sung in Russian, Czech, Italian, French and German.
“I’m constantly learning new parts and some of the hardest roles in the repertoire have been entrusted to me,” he says. “I’ve gotten to do most of the really big, demanding tenor parts over the course of my career.”
Most recently, Morris has received acclaim for his signature portrayal of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick.
“I sort of made the majority of my career, you know, as sort of a bit of a blue-collar guy,” he says. “I came in and did a lot of the hard parts and a lot of supporting roles and sprinkled in with some of the really good meaty stuff, but to blink and all of a sudden go from the cover to being the main guy, that was just good fortune. And luckily I was ready. You’ve gotta be ready. You can’t just stumble in off the streets.”
To kick off Ash Lawn Opera’s 40th season, Morris will perform at the Paramount Theater.
“Ash Lawn Opera is thrilled to welcome Jay Hunter Morris, who has generously agreed to come to Charlottesville to help us launch the celebration of our 40th season with a benefit concert,” says Kevin O’Halloran, Ash Lawn Opera’s executive director. “Jay is a remarkable artist, in demand across the globe, and we are excited that he will help us celebrate the growth of Charlottesville’s opera company.”
Morris promises a night of jazz, opera and country standards—and perhaps some “redneck” storytelling.
“There’s a little bit of the raconteur in me,” he says.