Opera Lively had the pleasure of interviewing a wonderful man and artist, Jay Hunter Morris [Opera Lively interview # 73], the tenor who took the opera world by surprise last season when he subbed in for the role of Siegfried on short notice at the Metropolitan Opera House, and did such a good job that he was propelled to international stardom the very next day. Jay is delightful, friendly, down-to-earth, and incredibly personable. He is also a formidable Heldentenor, and his well-deserved success at the Met is continuing with other excellent outings, such as his portrayal of Captain Ahab in the contemporary opera Moby Dick.
Since the singer's family became a topic of conversation in our interview, we chose, with his authorization, to start the illustration of our talk by including this beautiful personal picture of Jay with his lovely wife Meg and his cute son Cooper.
Singer - Jay Hunter Morris
Fach - Heldentenor
Born in - Paris, Texas, USA
Recently in - The Ring of the Nibelung, Metropolitan Opera House (Siegfried); Moby Dick, San Francisco Opera (Ahab)
Next in - The Flying Dutchman, Los Angeles, in March 2013. More Ring cycles at the Met, in April and May 2013. May 23, concert in San Antonio, Texas. June, GurreLieder in Vienna. For the remainder of the singer's schedule, consult his website at www.jayhuntermorris.com
Jay Hunter Morris is a child of two musicians. His father was a Southern Baptist musical minister, and his mother was a church organist. He studied music at Paris Junior College then completed his college education at Baylor University, where he earned a Bachelor of Music Education degree. He moved to Nashville and became a Gospell and Country singer. Next, he earned a Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance at Southern Baptist University, and studied the same field at Juilliard for two years.
In November of 1995, Jay sang the role of Anthony Candolino in the original production of Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning Master Class. In June of 1996 he was Pinkerton with Cheryl Barker in Madama Butterfly at Opera Australia. His Seattle Opera debut was in 1999 in Samuel Barber's Vanessa. His first role at the Metropolitan Opera house happened in 2007 - Steva in Janáček's acclaimed opera Jenůfa which was part of the Met Live in HD worldwide broadcasts.
Contemporary opera was a constant staple in the singer's career. He made his San Francisco Opera debut in the role of Mitch, alternating with Anthony Dean Griffey, in the world premiere season of André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire (1998). He was the creator of several roles, including Father Grenville in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000) at the San Francisco Opera, Unferth in Elliot Goldenthal's and Julie Taymor’s Grendel (2006) at the Los Angeles Opera, Captain James Nolan in John Adams's Doctor Atomic (2005) at the San Francisco Opera, as well as Marky in The Fly (2008) at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.
One of his favorite roles is Captain Ahab in Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick, which he sang in three different productions already, at State Opera of South Australia in August-September 2011, then at San Diego Opera in February 2012, and finally at San Francisco Opera, just recently in October–November 2012.
Photo Credit Aric Crabb
His signature role that brought him international fame was Siegfried in Wagner's opera of the same name, and in Götterdämmerung. He understudied the role at Seattle Opera in 2009, then again at Los Angeles Opera in 2010. He finally got to perform it live on stage at San Francisco Opera in June 2011.
Photo Credit Ken Howard
Jay's big break came when first Ben Heppner, then Gary Lehman dropped out of the Metropolitan Opera's Ring cycle in 2011, enabling our singer who was the understudy, to step emergencially with only two rehearsals left, and he sang it live on October 27, 2011. He went on to sing the Met Live in HD performance of November 5, and all subsequent shows of the run, including the Götterdämmerung part (starting on January 27, 2012).
June of 2012 saw our tenor in Valencia, Spain, performing Tristan under Zubin Mehta. This season, he is scheduled for Erik in The Flying Dutchman in Los Angeles, and for three more Ring cycles at the Met. Jay has sung in the past three more Wagnerian roles: Walther, Lohengrin, and Siegmund.
The singer is married to Broadway artist dancer-singer-actress Meg Gillentine, with whom he has a son, Cooper Jack Morris.
Jay Hunter Morris is featured in the following recordings, always in the principal tenor roles:
Madama Butterfly (2008) (DVD) – Pinkerton
$18.93, available [here]
Doctor Atomic (2008) (DVD and Blu-ray) – Captain James Nolan
$23.97 DVD, $30.93 Blu-ray, available [here]
Der Ring des Nibelungen (2012) (DVD and Blu-ray) – Siegfried
$129.99 DVD, $139.99 Blu-ray, available [here]
Wagner's Dream (documentary - DVD and Blu-ray) – Siegfried
$17.99 DVD, $23.87 Blu-ray, available [here]
Twilight of the Gods: The Ultimate Wagner Ring Collection (CD and MP3) – Siegfried
$9.99 MP3 download, $14.43 CD, available [here]
The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Jay Hunter Morris
© Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization. All photos were used with permission of the artist, and fully credited.
Credits - Questions by Opera Lively journalists Mary Auer and Luiz Gazzola. Editing/Proofreading by Opera Lively staff member Natalie Greenly.
OL – Hello, Mr. Morris!
JHM – Hello. Call me Jay!
OL – OK, great, call me Luiz. So, I’m Luiz from Opera Lively. Is this a good time to talk?
JHM – Yes, it’s a very good time, Luiz. Glad to meet you, sir! Thanks for calling!
OL – I’m the one who should be thanking you. I’m reading your “Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger” and I’m laughing so hard that you’ll probably find my serious questions very boring.
JHM – [Laughs] Good, that’s the idea, I hope so!
OL – So, thank you for talking to us. We have half an hour, right?
JHM – Yes, sir. I have a three-year-old son, hopefully he won’t be coming in here pulling on my ear too often.[laughs]
OL – [laughs] OK. So, I saw in your website, you had to cancel your appearances as Siegmund this month in Florence because of shoulder surgery. We were very sorry to learn about that. Are you OK? How are you feeling now?
JHM – I’m doing really well, now. Yes, I had shoulder replacement surgery here in my right arm, November 12, but I feel really good. I’m ready to get back to singing, I’ve been off for a couple of months. You know, you have to refill the well every now and then. I tend to work hard for a while, and then I manage to get a couple of months to lie down and rest. I wish I didn’t have to have my body cut open to do that [laughs] but it needed to get done.
OL – I’m glad to hear that you’re well. Was that performance in Florence at the Teatro Communale going to be your debut as Siegmund?
JHM – Sort of. I have sung the first act in concert before, and I covered Plácido Domingo in Los Angeles, so I got to do all the rehearsals. And then, of course he came in for the performances. I feel like I’ve been through couple of productions of Siegmund.
OL – I see. Will this one with NC Opera be a concert performance, or staged?
JHM – Concert.
OL – OK. In general, some singers have found concert performances of operas to be less strenuous than a staged opera; however some others, such as Siegfried Jerusalem, felt that concert performances were more difficult in that they restricted his ability to move. What has been your experience?
JHM – I love concerts. I prefer them, just because they are all about the music. It’s the same thing for rehearsals of staged opera productions. Everybody is different, but my favorite part is the Sitzprobe, which is the day we just stand and sing with the orchestra, and we are not distracted by sets and acting and colleagues, all this other stuff; it’s just about the music, and we don’t get to do that very often. I’ve probably only sung a dozen concerts in my life, I *love* it, I’m so excited to just come and rehearse this music!
I think your audience is really in for a big treat. As I look at the program, that’s a fantastic night of music.
OL - The role of Siegmund actually lies quite low. Does this pose any particular problem for a tenor? Do you find it difficult?
JHM – Oh my gosh, no! I love this music. Listen, compared to Siegfried?!? It’s such a pleasure, there are such great tunes. For us tenors, I like singing high. I enjoy singing high notes and I feel that I’ve worked it out for these last twenty years that I can handle the tessitura pretty well. I’ve been at this for a while, and I just now am comfortable singing low. I enjoy it. It sorts of takes the pressure of the role off, the possibility of the voice cracking. There is nothing worse than standing in front of a paying audience and splattering and cracking your voice all over the place. It is not fun! I feel like with Siegmund I have a really good chance at having a good evening, so it makes it the whole evening and even the whole rehearsal period such a pleasure!
OL - In a sense, Siegmund is similar to Captain Ahab or Peter Grimes in that he’s an outsider, perhaps even a social outcast. You’re obviously not in that category – you seem to be such a happy fellow, so how do you “get inside” of these sorts of characters mentally or emotionally?
JHM – You know what, I do the same thing that I’ve been doing my whole life, and that is, I use my imagination. To me, it’s easy, because it’s outlined for me. You know who this guy is, he is running for his life, he is an outcast, everywhere he goes people disagree with him, he is put down, he is pushed away, he has always been fought against. We have not only the guidelines of who he is as a personality, but also the text and the music. I feel like – especially with Wagner – that he is so clear! He defines who the guy is, and it is up to me to just use my imagination and step into his shoes. Like Ahab. You put on that peg leg, you put on that hat, you get the scar, and you just step into the guy. People who are in opera are in showbiz. We put on a performance. I’ve been doing this in one form or another for my whole life, and it’s what gives me the most pleasure and the most joy, it’s to step into somebody that is completely different from me.
And Luiz, listen. Can you imagine the year that I got to have last year! I mean, I got to sing Siegfried, who is this 17-year-old demigod, and to me the polar opposite of him as a character, which is Captain Ahab, the single-minded, driven antithesis of Siegfried. This is what I love to do. It’s fun, it’s such a joy for a few hours get lost completely in the music and in the story. I think that’s why people go! We go to movies and plays and music, we want to escape the noise of our lives for a few hours and step into something completely different.
OL – Let me ask you a question about Siegfried. We often debate on the website about some traits of his personality. He has this heroic, driven side, but also sometimes he is depicted by Wagner as a sort of naïve fool that can be easily manipulated. How do you relate to these two sides of his personality?
JHM – Oh, gosh. That's easy. You know what? He is young! He is naïve. We all… I was there for a minute. I was seventeen and I thought I knew everything, and yet at the same time I was encapsulated into this protected innocence. I have a lot of things going to draw from in my own life. I've got a nephew that I hung out a lot with when he was sixteen, seventeen, I know how he acted and how he thought, and how he carried his body. It's playacting, it's just using our imagination and stepping in somebody else's skin. I very much can relate to Siegfried. I wish I were seventeen and fearless and naïve and not quite limited by Father Time.
OL – Yep. Let me ask you a kind of risky question. Feel free to say "Well, let's not go there" if you prefer. Jon Vickers was a noted Siegmund, and also a very devout Christian. He once turned down an offer to sing Tannhäuser because he found the role morally repugnant. Like Mr. Vickers, you had a very religious upbringing – your father was a Baptist music minister and your mother played the organ at church services. After you graduated from Baylor University, you were involved in ministry yourself. Does your background have any impact on how you view certain roles? Many people would probably find an incestuous relationship between twins to be pretty objectionable. Does what Siegmund does get in your head in some way?
JHM – [Pauses] No, not at all. In fact I think that's the first time I've given it much thought. It's showbiz. It's not who I am. I'm not stepping out and saying that I approve of this. I'm just playing the character. I enjoy playing the crazy guy. I enjoy playing Canio who is vengeful and kills his wife and her lover. I enjoy playing that but I don't approve of that type of behavior. There are some things that I don't want to do. I don't really want to curse a whole lot. I don't want to do anything that is going to make my mother uncomfortable if she is sitting out there in the audience. I don't really want to be one of those fellows who go out there without their shirts or pants on. It's not good for the audience, or for me.
I've been asked to sing Tannhäuser recently, and I passed on it too, but not for the same reasons. That's a big, long, hard sing. There are a handful of really big, long songs that I'm going to step in for, but there are some that I will say "no" to, and that was one that I did say "no" to.
I have a moral compass that is very strong. It came from my youth and all of my adult life. I feel very compelled to be a man that my mother and my father would be proud of. More importantly, I want to be a man that my wife can look up to and my child can think that I'm the best guy in the world, but rarely what I do in the operatic world influences that. It's more how I behave at home.
OL – Yes, nice! So, I was about to ask you about Tannhäuser and you won't do that. What about Rienzi? Any plans to sing it? You've sung most of Wagner's heroic tenor roles already except those two and Parsifal.
JUH – Yes. But you know what I want to sing? I want to sing Meistersinger again. It's probably been eight years or so since I sang it in San Francisco and in Frankfurt, and I love it. I want to sing Lohengrin some more. I'd love to sing Parsifal. But I've learned over the years that we can't do everything. We all change as we grow. We can't sing the same repertoire all the time. I went through a period when I was younger when I sang all the romantic Italian roles, and then I went through a period when I sang a lot of Czech and Russian, the Slavic things. You find different things that you are drawn to, and more importantly, that are offered to you. I said for years that my repertoire was whatever anybody would pay me to sing. Anything anybody asked me to sing, I said, "Yes, please." And just over the last couple of years that has changed, and I'm able to say, "You know what, I want to sing Siegfried, I want to sing Tristan."
If I take six months of my life to learn Rienzi, I'm probably not going to sing it more than three or four times. All over the world, it's not done very often. There are four or five roles that I'd rather sing than Tannhäuser or Rienzi. Especially now, I'm reminded as I step into this new year, after the amazing year that I had last year… I mean, I got to sing my first Tristan in concert with Zubin Mehta! Can you imagine such a thing? I sang Siegfried at the Met! This new role that I love so much, Captain Ahab in this amazing new opera! I got to have an absolute career year. And as I stand on the cusp of 2013, I want more! [laughs] It's so fun, it's so good!
OL – Good for you!
JHM – It's such a joy to get to sing this incredible music with an orchestra like the Met orchestra, with such colleagues. One phone call, and all of a sudden I'm standing there singing with Bryn Terfel and Debbie Voigt! I want to do this more! As I stand here looking at my schedule of the next couple of years, it rings true that I can't do everything. I have to pick a few solid things that I wish for. That's the specific things me and my manager, my wife, and my support team, my inner circle of five people are hoping for and wishing for and welcoming. I've got a big banner that runs constantly across my mind, that says "I can't force great things, I can't force the world to give me opportunities, but I can make great opportunities welcome." I’m hoping to get opportunities to do this handful of roles that I really covet. Somebody, someday, will give me my first Peter Grimes. I can't wait!
OL – Right, because one risk would be to be kind of typecast as a Wagnerian stylist, because you also want other things, right? Otello, for instance.
JHM – Absolutely! I really want the acting roles. I want to be the guy that gets to go crazy and kill people. I want to be the guy with the myopic view of the world that is consumed with hate for this white whale. I want to be that guy who wins the girl. I spent many years either being the supporting character or being the understudy, being out in the audience, waiting, watching, preparing, I think that's why I felt so prepared when the call came for me to step in as Siegfried, both in San Francisco and at the Met. It's because I spent a lot of years thinking, "What do I want to do when it's my turn? Who do I want this guy to be?" I understudied three men doing great jobs as Siegfried. That gives you time to envision and prepare yourself, and think, "How do I want these characters to sound when I get my turn?"
OL – Yes. I read your point about thinking "Oh, I will never get the big break." And then you did, of course. We are all thrilled for you. But I want to ask a more psychological question. The big break, the sudden fame, does that mess up with your head in some way? Do you feel that there is any downside to this incredible exposure and fame that you've achieved last year?
JHM – Absolutely not. [laughs] I haven't found yet if there is a downside. I've had a great run. Twenty years ago I decided, "I want to try and sing opera." I'm from the South, so my vision was, "I'm going to put my bait in the water and I'm going to see if anything bites. I'll get a job and if I don't, then I'll go do something else." I haven't always been on top. I've spent a lot of time in the valley. The best thing about these big breaks is that I get to sing this music. All of a sudden I'm singing with the Met Orchestra, have you heard them? The San Francisco Opera. All of a sudden I'm standing there, looking down on Zubin Mehta throwing me cues to sing Tristan – there is no downside to that. I can't think of anything negative.
Photo Credit Gil Lavi
I'll be honest with you. The most challenging part about this is the pressure. You cannot deny that the night before, and then the days before singing Siegfried on an HD broadcast, knowing that the camera are going to be down my throat, up-close and personal, and I'm going to be on 100-feet high IMAX screens all over the world, opera lovers from all over the world will be sitting up there and watching and judging and hopefully being entertained. There is a very real and very tangible pressure there. I did a lot of pacing, and I did a lot of staring into the abyss. But as soon as that orchestra started tuning, I was fine, I was at home on the stage, I was relaxed. I didn't know how it would end, if I'd still have a voice at the end of the night, if the audience would love me, or if the critics would love me, and I still don't.
OL – Well, you did great. I think that by now you must have realized that you really did great, no?
JHM – Yeah, but I mean, that doesn't mean that the next time I go out there it won't be different. That's the most exciting and challenging thing about Siegfried, is that with something that long and that challenging, you just don't know if at the end of the night you are still going to have a voice left. So, I take this love that I'm getting from the audience and I'm savoring it. It may be old hat to some singers, they may have been getting it their whole career, but I haven't. And right now I get emails from people that are not my family or friends, that take the time to write me and give me support and love, and I read every one them, and I appreciate it and enjoy it. It's nice! Truly, it's such a luxury to be loved and respected, right now. I know very well it's short-lived, and it's not unanimous, not everybody likes me. I've heard the CDs of these recordings from the Ring and I've watched the videos, and you know, I like what I do most of the time. I'm not entirely pleased, and I'm not finished, I’ve got a long list of things that I'm working on and I want to do better. I think I'm going to do better this year than I did last year. But all of this good stuff that is happening really since Francesca Zambello told me she wanted me to be the Siegfried in San Francisco, that started everything – since that day, to Peter Gelb giving me my opportunities there at the Met - it's all be such a pleasure, such a joy! I *swim* in gratitude every day, I am so thankful! Because it could have been somebody else. All of these rides were supposed to have been taken by another man. So, look, I'm grateful, and I'm thankful every day and I look forward to getting over there and giving it another shot and do my best.
Photo Credit Gil Lavi
OL – But what about all the pressures that can come from this? From now on, you are in high demand, there will be traveling all over, less family time, staying in hotels all the time, and so forth. Is this something that makes you think "Oops, maybe I got too famous, too suddenly" or is it the case that drawing from for inner structure and your inner strength, you feel that all of that will be fine?
JHM – All of that will be fine. Listen, it's not like you think. I am guilty of thinking that you sit there and you stand in front of the Met audience and they are giving you some love and you hear from people out that that saw it in the movie theaters, and I get all the support from friends and colleagues, but that doesn't necessarily translate into jobs. There was a time last year that we though, "OK, my calendar is going to fill up quickly, and I'm going to get to sing all over the world" and people said "Oh gosh, you are going to be in great demand" – it's not really like that. I have gotten a good handful, as you can see on my schedule, of very good jobs, thank goodness. Peter Gelb is giving me some more shots, and I get to come back and sing two of the Ring cycles this year. But it's not like all of a sudden I can't leave my house because there are paparazzi out on the door. I mean, let's keep it real, this is opera, not the movies. As passionate as I think that our fans are, they are not knocking the doors down, and neither are all of the opera companies of the world all of a sudden flooding my inbox with offers. The best thing is that I'm going to get some chances to sing some more great music, and to sing with some of the best singers in the world.
For somebody who has been trying to do this for so long, twenty-three years now… You know, I've been friends with these guys for a long time. I've been friends with Bryn Terfel for twenty years, we've played golf together in Santa Fe in 1990 when I was an apprentice there. I love his singing and I've bought his records. I never thought I would get a chance to share the stage with him. Most of the people who are up there singing in the Ring at the Met have been stars at the Metropolitan Opera for a lot of years – Bryn Terfel, Stephanie Blythe, Debbie Voigt, they've been there for years. So, it's just… to be me and to get to watch for twenty years, and then all of a sudden to be out there sharing the stage with them, woooo, it's good, boy!
OL – Let me ask you about modern and contemporary works. You did do some 21st century operas and some from the second half of the 20th century. Do you find this repertoire to be more difficult as compared to the 19th century and early 20th?
JHM – Certainly, a lot of it is. Most of the time it comes down to tunes, to having something that is easy on the ears, something that takes root in your mind and is easy to remember and easy to perform. You take that against a piece like, say, Wozzeck that is such a challenge. It's a different game, completely. I've been very lucky. I was in the world-premiere production of A Streetcar Named Desire, I was in Dead Man Walking, Grendel, Doctor Atomic, The Fly, I got to be a part of several world premiere productions of new operas, and I've enjoyed them, it's great. I'll tell you something, I've never loved a show the way I loved Moby Dick, and not just because I got to play Ahab. Everybody from the orchestra players to the backstage personnel, we all felt this unifying passion for this piece, it's such a great production!
Listen, it's just like you. You go to work in the morning, and you sit down and you take a look at your case files, and you take each individual on their own, and you look them in the face, and that's what we do with opera too. I take each individual opera and role and I sit down and I say, "OK, this is a chapter of my life, I'm going to do the best I can", whether it be Puccini, or a Czech piece. I'm going to have to work for six months on the language. I have never, ever felt anything but privilege, to get to sit down and say, "OK, you know what, I'm going to learn this new role." Even if it is these new modern pieces that are often so difficult. I'm getting paid to sing, so I count my blessings, and I sit down and do my studies, and I know that I'm lucky that I get paid to sing.
OL – Right. There are some composers right now who are really pushing the boundaries of music theater today – people like Salvatore Sciarrino or Heiner Goebbels. Goebbels even thinks opera houses as performance spaces are becoming obsolete. Where do you see contemporary opera headed? What do you feel will be the future of the art form?
JHM – Hm… I don’t know where this technology is taking us. What do me and my colleagues, as artists, as singers, talk about? – We want a compelling story, we want music that is engaging and enthralling and captivating not only for the audience, but for us, and we want a production in a staging that is new, that is fresh, that uses this technology that we’ve got… because you know what? We are in showbiz just as much as the movie theaters are, and musical theater is. New operas have got to meet those criteria. It’s got to be a good story, it’s got to be well set, the music has to be all those things we’ve just talked about. That’s the reason I’m so excited about Moby Dick. Because of their use of 3D projections, and the stage, and the way Jake [Heggie] wrote the score, everything came together. For the composers, it’s an enormous challenge and an enormous burden to write something that hasn’t been done before, but is still so captivating to the audience. We’ve got to be entertainers. I don’t know where all this technology is taking us, and thank goodness it’s not my job to figure that out, my job is to go out there and tell the story and I’ll do my part as best as I can.
OL – Great. Let me go back to something I skipped in my list of questions here. When you have to sing such a long role as Siegfried, how do you prepare yourself in terms of general health, physical condition, warming of the voice? Do you have a routine, do you get all superstitious, saying “I can’t do this or that because I’m singing Siegfried” – what is your routine to prepare for such demanding long roles?
Photo Credit Gil Lavi
JHM – My wife calls it the cocoon. [laughs] She and Cooper generally stay away during those periods. I go to work and to rehearsal, and I go home. That’s about it, I don’t waste much energy on social life. I exercise a lot to keep my stamina. But here is the thing: you’ve got to sing well. If I sing well for two hours, then I’ve got a good chance for singing well for another two hours. If I go out there and scream, and sing poorly and use poor technique, come off the breath, and don’t use my support, I don’t have a chance. This is what is so exciting about it and frightening, this is why I go into the cocoon for Siegfried. This is why when I’m not on stage I’m so nervous, and I’m so terrified. There’s some very, very challenging music at the end of the opera. Now, we might rehearse Act III of Siegfried for three hours in the morning. And if I do it isolated like that, I have a really good chance of doing it well, I think; I feel like I’ve worked it out to a place that I’m going to get through it OK, my voice is going to be strong and fresh. But you put that at the four and five hour mark, after I’ve already been singing act I and act II, it’s a whole different game! So, knowing that, people ask, “Do you save your voice in act I and act II” No, I don’t do that. My best game plan is to save up all of my energy, so that when that curtain goes up I can sing well, I can act well, I can feel strong, for the five or six hours. If I sing well the whole time, then I have a chance at finishing it.
OL – I see. Now let’s go to the last part of the interview, with a little more about the person Jay. First of all, your family. Cooper, how old is he now?
JHM – Cooper is three and a half.
OL – Wow! Is he already aware that Daddy is an opera singer? Does he go to the performances, stay on the side wings, or go interact with the musicians, anything like that, do you take him?
Singer's personal picture
JHM – A little bit. He comes to rehearsals, more. He certainly knows that Daddy fights the dragon, and he knows all about Moby Dick and the white whale, and he knows all about the orchestra, I talked to him, we’ve been studying all the orchestra sections. Meg my wife comes and brings him, he will sit out there and see the orchestra, sit on the edge of the orchestra pit sometimes. Not a whole lot, because whenever he sees me he screams Daddy!!! [laughs] So we haven’t quite worked on our theater etiquette and on our good behavior, he hasn’t been old enough for that yet. But he’s been watching conductors on the Internet since he was a little boy. I’ve got a baton for him, and he likes to walk around and swing it, and believes that he is going to be a conductor one day.
OL – Wow! That’s fabulous! [laughs]
JHM – Yeah, I like that idea too!
OL – So, what about your wife, she is in music as well, right?
Singer's personal picture
JHM – Oh yes, is she ever! She is the real star of the family. I met Meg [Gillentine] when we were both living in New York City and she was singing and dancing on Broadway. She sang and danced for ten years on Broadway, she was in Fosse and Cats and The Producers, in fact she is about to do The Producers here in Atlanta at Fox Theater. She won awards; she won the Helen Hayes Award for Best Actress as Lola in Damn Yankees a few years ago, and she is very talented. We’ve got such a great life right now, we travel, we see the world, I take the time and sing for a while, next week Meg is going to rehearsal and I going to be doing the babysitting and full time Daddy day care. She gets her chances to do the things that she loves, and I get a turn every now and then.
OL – Wow, super nice!
JHM – I also have some family down there in Raleigh. I’ve never been to Raleigh but I have a stepbrother there. My father passed away when I was thirteen and my mother married again when I was older, a very good man, and I have a stepbrother named Jeff Beckett who is pastor at Salem Baptist Church there in Raleigh [It’s actually in Apex, a suburb of Raleigh]. And so I’m going to have the chance of visiting with some family again. He’s got a big family, four kids. Also, Eric Mitchko, I don’t know if you know this guy or not.
OL – Of course I do!
JHM – You know, he and I go back. He was my manager. He worked for Columbia Artists Management, Inc., for several years and he was my agent, and took care of me, so I’m very happy to get to come back and spend a little time with Eric.
OL – Were you musically inclined since a young age? How did you get into this in the first place?
JHM – No, I was your average teenage American. I wasn’t special. No one, not my mother, not my High School choir teacher, would have predicted that I would get to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. I sang in choirs, I played guitar and piano, I was very active in church music that was the foundation for me, singing in the church and being involved in the ministry.
To be honest, I was sort of bored with church music. Contemporary music, and country, and the little rock-and-roll and stuff, there wasn’t a lot of challenge in it for me, I wasn’t very good at it. I wanted to find something to be really good at. So, when I realized the breadth and the scope of what opera singers do with their voices, I just thought, “I want to try that, I want to see if I have a voice for this. I sort of stayed alive in the business, sometimes by the skin of my teeth… It wasn’t a calling. I didn’t grow up listening to opera, or singing Italian art songs around the house, it came to me later, and sort of came to me slowly.
OL – Do you recall the first time you attended a live opera?
JHM – I certainly recall a performance that changed everything for me. That was at the Dallas Opera, I saw La Traviata, I don’t remember how old I was, but it was after college; it was the moment when I said “I really want to try and do that. I’m bored musically, with the other parts of my life, I’ll just give that a shot.” So I went back to grad school. That was when I sought out that teacher in Dallas [Editor's note: his teacher was recommended by Alfredo Kraus] and said “I want to give this a go!”
OL – Maybe the last question: how do you describe yourself as a person, what’s your personality like?
Photo Credit Gil Lavi
JHM – I don’t really know the answer to that! I mean, I’m very comfortable in front of very big crowds, I’m not very comfortable in front of small crowds. My mom asks me to sing a hymn sitting around the table with my family, I’m a nervous wreck. If I have to sing at church in front of three hundred people, I’m a nervous wreck. I need the costume, the make-up, the lights, the orchestra. Whenever I get to step out and be somebody else I’m very comfortable. Whenever I have to be me, that makes me a little bit more nervous.
OL – Wow, one wouldn’t have expected that, reading your book. You were so natural and frank… You did expose yourself in a very candid, interesting, and funny way.
JHM – Well, let me tell you about that. Those were just emails to my family. I never sat down to write a book. It’s just whenever I have to write to my mom and say, “Oh my gosh, you are not going to believe what happened to me today.” And I just saved them over the years. I got a lot of love over the years for it, it took a little life of its own. The emails got sent around and I heard from a lot of people that enjoyed them, but it was *hard!!* It was *really* very difficult for me to put that out there for public consumption, because that means that I think it’s OK, that I am to some degree a writer, and that was a big challenge for me.
OL – Thank you for a very interesting interview. I’ll be working on it today, while I watch the NFL playoffs. High brow and low brow entertainment… A friend of mine said that opera is more violent than football.
JHM – [Laughs hard] I like it! Thank you very much, Luiz, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Let's watch the artist's fine acting and listen to his great singing in this clip from Siegfried in the Met production:
A few months after he granted us this great interview, Jay signed with Opera Lively Press to publish his hilarious memoirs, "Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger." It quickly became our best-seller. The book is precious, and got some 45 positive reviews on Amazon. You can get it from Amazon, or from our own secure e-store that ships everywhere in the world, by clicking [here]. This book is a must read for all opera lovers; for $10.95, it is a bargain, and it is also available for $6.50 in Kindle edition from Amazon. Don't miss it!
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