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
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 6/13/13, 01:22 pm

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. 

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.

Can you tell me about your faith journey? Yes, I’d love to talk about that, because it’s the central driving force in my life. The most important thing I want to teach my son is who he is in relation to God. I told you that I was very involved in ministry in my youth, all the way through my 20s and my 30s. I was involved in church work and in contemporary Christian music. Things changed for me when I found this passion for opera. I realized that the Lord needs people out there in the real world. The pulpit is not the only place that I can be of use to Him. As I grow as a man, as a Christian man, and as I, hopefully, sow seeds of influence out there in the real world, I can be of use to Him. 

How has being in that world, the opera world, worked out for you spiritually? I’m like everybody else out there in the real world. There have been times that I’ve been on the mountaintops and I’ve felt really good about my career, my personal life, and my spiritual life, and there are times where it’s been a struggle for me. But I know now more than ever that the biggest gift that my father gave to me and passed on to me is my drive and a sense of who I am spiritually. I want to pass that on to my son. That’s who I want to be to my colleagues, the people that I work with. The people that know me, they know who I am. The most important role in my life is that I be a good father and a good husband. So that’s what I’m working on. 

Was your decision to live in Atlanta instead of New York a part of that process of having a more normal life, a life where you could be a husband and father and your son could be a child? You better believe it. I did my time. I lived in New York for 13 years and my wife, Meg, and I lived in Los Angeles for a while but, when you add a child into the mix, your priorities change. Meg grew up here in Marietta, Ga., and I grew up in Paris, Texas. So we didn’t have family around out there in Los Angeles and we wanted our son Cooper to have a strong family life and to be near grandparents. About a year and a half ago we moved down here to Roswell, Georgia. I’m looking out here on the woods. There’s a lake right down the street. We’ve got a stream flowing by the house. This is where I want to raise my family. This is where I want to be. We want to play out in the yard, you know, play in the dirt with sticks and go fishing in the lake. 

What about church? We go to NorthPoint Church out here in Alpharetta. Andy Stanley’s church. And we enjoy it. It’s very grounding and it’s one of the first steps we took in our personal lives [after moving here].

Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians, or artists of any kind? I can tell not only young people, but also the parents of young people, this: Once you get to a certain level, everybody’s talented. The important thing is to pursue what you love and work really hard at it. The reason I’m here now is because I have worked hard at it. I’ve had a passion for the practice room and trying to figure out this art form. You can do it. You don’t have to grow up in London or Paris or Berlin to be great in the opera world. I want to be a great testimony that if you will work hard and pursue your dreams, then you might make it all the way to the Met.

Listen to a report about Jay Hunter Morris on The World and Everything in It, our daily radio program.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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