The tenor is not the featured role in Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman — and that’s OK with Jay Hunter Morris, the tenor performing in Cincinnati Opera’s production of it on Thursday and Saturday at Music Hall.
Wagner’s 1843 German opera is the tale of the Dutchman, who is doomed to sail a ghost ship forever but can come ashore once every seven years to search for true love. Senta, a sailor’s daughter attracted to him, tries to help rescue him from his cursed existence.
In Cincinnati Opera’s production, soprano Marcy Stonikas and bass-baritone Nathan Berg are the stars as Senta and the Dutchman, respectively. By comparison, Morris’ role is a “short sing” — he makes his Cincinnati Opera debut as Erik, who loses his Senta to the Dutchman. It’s also a short sing in comparison to the other demanding Wagner roles in Morris’ repertoire. But it’s far from easy. And, besides, it’s a role that Morris loves.
“Erik’s a boy who wants a girl who doesn’t love him, and I have been that boy so many times,” he says. “I want him to be 18 or 19, trying to talk sense into this girl.”
He goes on to explain that the role encompasses two very different voices in each of Erik’s scenes. “One is the plea Erik makes in the second act, begging Senta not to leave him,” he says. “In the third act, the aria is very Italianate — very high and very tricky. Plus, I’m singing with other big voices, including Senta and the Dutchman.”
“It’s short and the singing is really challenging,” he continues. “Even if Erik is a boy, you can’t sing this (unless you’re) an adult with some experience.”
That would define Morris, who has been singing opera for almost 25 years, including leading roles and world premieres throughout the world.
Total immersion defines Morris’ work, especially his best-known role: Captain Ahab in Jake Heggie’s 2010 opera Moby-Dick. It’s an astonishing, gripping performance, one that can be seen on a DVD of him with the San Francisco Opera.
Morris appeared as Erik when this same production of The Flying Dutchman premiered last year at the Atlanta Opera. He has high praise for his colleagues Stonikas and Berg, and for Tomer Zvulun’s original staging. When asked about the production, which utilizes graphic and cinematic projections, Morris grins and replies, “I was so in the moment that I didn’t pay attention. But everyone who saw it loved it.”
Tall, with a linebacker’s physique and blonde/white hair, Morris grew up in Paris, Texas and headed to Nashville to seek a singing career in Gospel and Country. But once he heard La Traviata in Dallas, he pursued opera singing at Southern Methodist University there and then two years at Juilliard School in New York.
In 1995, Morris landed a part in the original production of Terrence McNally’s play Master Class — about a class the great opera singer Maria Callas gives late in her career. Gigs in Australia and Seattle followed. But by 2003, the calls had evaporated and Morris contemplated giving up.
Two compassionate voice teachers provided free lessons, meals and reassurance. The phone started ringing again. By 2007, Morris had made his New York Metropolitan Opera debut. In 2011, Morris gained an international following when he took over the key role of Siegfried in Wagner’s massive Ring Cycle, after two other tenors stepped down due to illness.
Morris says the timing of that was perfect in terms of his vocal readiness. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it a year earlier,” he says.
A tenor who can handle Wagner’s dramatic and exhausting demands is considered a heldentenor, meaning heroic tenor, but Morris doesn’t see himself in that rarified group — and his modest demurral echoes his honesty about himself and his abilities.
“The best thing about Siegfried was that I got to sing with the best orchestra in the world, and with singers I’m in awe of,”he says.
Morris’ conversation is punctuated with expressions of gratitude and humility, and with an unrelenting awareness that you’re only as good as your next gig.
“I wrestle with demons as much as anyone,” he sighs, then immediately brightens. “But most of the time, I win. I’m unspeakably blessed.”
Cincinnati Opera presents The Flying Dutchman at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at Music Hall (1241 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine). Tickets: cincinnatiopera.org