Jay Hunter Morris’s Texas twang makes him sound more like a country and western singer than a trusted former understudy to Luciano Pavarotti. The tenor stars in The Flying Dutchman, opening November 4 at the Atlanta Opera, in the role of Erik, who loves a woman enamored with the captain of a ghost ship. The event marks a homecoming for the Juilliard-trained virtuoso, who lives in Roswell with his family when he’s not touring from Italy to Beijing or performing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Here, he discusses his mighty set of pipes.
I grew up in Paris, Texas, where my father was a Southern Baptist music minister and my mother played the organ. I got my start singing in church. I had never really appreciated opera until I moved to Dallas and heard Verdi’s “La Traviata.” I became fascinated with what a human voice could do and how you could project it with no microphone over a 100-piece orchestra to reach 2,000 people. I became a heldentenor—a big, heroic voice.
In 2011 at the Met, you caught a break that made you a world-class star. Describe that experience.
I was going through a dry patch, but I was offered the part of understudy to one of the most difficult operas: the role of Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, a grueling five-and-a-half-hour production at the Met. There are a gazillion words in the part. At the last minute the other tenor got sick, so I had to step up. That was magical. I shared the stage with artists I idolized and sang with the greatest orchestra on Earth at arguably the world’s best opera house.
What do you like about the Atlanta Opera?
It’s home. My wife, Meg Gillentine, and I met when we both were singing on Broadway. She’s from Kennesaw and was a Miss Cobb County, I’ll have you know. Being able to work close to home, surrounded by friends and family, is the best feeling ever.
What do you dislike about your work?
Sometimes I wear tights. I could do without that.
You penned the memoir Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger. Are people startled by the difference between your folksy manner and your sophisticated arias?
I can sing in Italian, French, German, Russian, Czech, but I talk like a country boy, darlin’. It’s a source of amusement to my colleagues and to me.
This article originally appeared in our November 2017 issue.