Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried in The Ring Cycle. (Photo by Ken Howard)
Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried in The Ring Cycle. (Photo by Ken Howard)

'Redneck opera singer' got start in church

Paris, Texas, native Jay Hunter Morris is the son of a Southern Baptist music minister who followed in his father's footsteps until he found opera.

By Jeff Brumley

Paris sounds like the natural home town for any world-class opera singer. But for Jay Hunter Morris, one of the top operatic tenors on the planet, it all started in Paris, Texas.

And a career that’s made him an international superstar also had its beginning in small Baptist churches, time spent as a Baptist music minister and undergraduate studies at Baylor University.

The irony of a guy with a Texas drawl singing opera’s most cherished parts — in an array of foreign languages — isn’t lost on the 50-year-old Morris. In part, it explains the title of his 2013 book, Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger.

JayHunterMorrisAHABThe cover features the Eiffel Tower adorned with a cowboy hat.

“I’m not really a redneck, and I never really was,” said Morris, who lives in Roswell, Ga. “But in the world of opera, people hear me talk and they immediately think I grew up in the rodeo.”

Morris has no proving to do. He won a Grammy this year for his role as Siegfried in Wagner’s classic The Ring Cycle, which was produced by the Metropolitan Opera. Recently he played Capt. Ahab in the San Francisco Opera’s production of Moby-Dick, and he generally is in demand in opera houses around the world.

Currently between gigs, Morris agreed to an interview with ABPnews about how the son of a Southern Baptist music minister found his calling in a very different kind of music.

That long blond hair you’re wearing in Siegfried – is it really yours?

Yeah, that’s me all right. No, no. No, that’s not my hair. That was a very nice wig, and its funny because I grew a long beard (for Moby-Dick) and I have been asked many times: is your beard really that white? There is a lot of white in my beard and the beard was mine.... My wife hated that thing, but it was so perfect for the show.

Where are you singing these days?

I’ve got a little time off. We’ve been going really hard for about the last eight months. We’ve been traveling a lot, singing a lot. We have a minute now, so we are going to go to Texas to visit my family and be home for Thanksgiving, and we start up again in January.

“We?” You’re wife sings, too?

My wife, Meg, and our 4-year-old son. Meg ... is a singer and a dancer and actress. Meg Gillentine. We met in New York City many years ago ... when she was dancing and singing on Broadway. She is not in the opera world. She’s in the musical theater world and does a good bit of TV commercials.... We are just back from New York where she did a show with Wynton Marsalis and Stephen Sondheim. We just kind of go all the time.

Before opera you pursued a career in gospel music. Was it to be a minister or a performer?

My dad was a Southern Baptist music minister and I grew up in church in Paris, Texas.... From the time I went to Baylor, I worked in churches and I did music for camps. I was involved in the ministry. I was never a recording artist. I was the guy that got up and led music for different kinds of events and concerts. I moved to Nashville with the hopes of being involved in the ministry and I did hope to do some recording and some studio work… But when I got to Nashville I found out how truly mediocre I was...  I was stunned by the passion those musicians possessed. I realized that one of the key ingredients, to be truly great at something, is the desire. I had never had that passion.

Do you still attend a church?

We go to North Point (Community Church) in Alpharetta, Ga. We love it. We’re not home often, but we go when we’re not out there in the world.

Do you still listen to gospel music — and if so, what kind?

I love the black gospel music. I love Bebe and Cece Winans.... I like the singers that can get up there and wail. I still have a soft spot in my heart for the old-time gospel songs. I love the Gaither Vocal Band....  It’s all good for my soul. The music speaks to me louder than the word.

What opera turned you on to that art form?

When I was 25, I saw La Traviata and that changed the course of my life. That was 25 years ago. I thought, “Wow, how did they do that?” I was so shocked at the technique that’s involved, how they made their throats work like that. And I thought, “I want to try that.”

You never saw that coming?

I was always an OK singer, but there certainly were no indications in my youth I was going to be able to sustain an opera career for 20 years....  There was no indication that my voice was going to sing Siegfried at The Met someday. I won a Grammy last year — nobody would have believed that five years ago.

Why did you title your book the way you did — do people in opera see you as a redneck?

I have enjoyed over the years the preconceived notions people have when they hear I grew up in Texas. People think that because I sound country — and I do sound country — that I grew up herding sheep or something.... (The book is) not a lot about opera. It’s a series of e-mails I have written to my family back in Texas telling them what happened to me out there in the world, getting to perform with some of the best musicians in the world. A lot of funny stories have unfolded and very few of them are about opera.

Speaking of stereotypes, are opera singers as a whole pretty high-class and serious people?

Two to 3 percent of the working people in opera make a lot of money and travel first class and have recording contracts.... But here in the states most of us are just normal people who love the art form.... We come from all over and one thing we share is a great zeal for this art form. It doesn’t matter where you come from as long as you can provide what is required.

Can you recommend any operas for people who don’t know much about it?

Absolutely. There are a handful of great beginner operas. I recommend La Traviata by Verdi. La Boheme by Puccini…. Pagliacci (by Ruggero Leoncavallo). There is a reason those are so popular: because it’s so good and it's short and some of it will be very familiar.

Do you have advice for budding opera singers?

The one thing I know above all else that this journey has taught me is you can do it if you are willing to do the work. I love the work and I love practicing. I love trying to figure out how to make these sounds. And that is why I have managed, that is why I’ve gotten the breaks that I got — because I have worked relentlessly at it for 25 years. My dad always told me, if there is somebody out there who can do it, then so can you.