As a tenor, Jay Hunter Morris is used to playing the love interest, his attempts at finding happiness with the soprano usually thwarted by a dastardly baritone. In Jennifer Higdon’s new opera Cold Mountain, which receives its world première on 1 August at Santa Fe Opera, the tables are turned and he gets to portray a nasty, dark villain himself. Sadistic Captain Teague is the leader of the local Home Guard, who hunts down Civil War deserters. I spoke to Jay about this forthcoming role, about singers who’ve influenced him and which role he’d sing were he a baritone for the day...

Jay Hunter Morris © Vii Tanner
Jay Hunter Morris
© Vii Tanner

How would you describe Jennifer Higdon’s music for Cold Mountain? 

Her music is very singular. When you hear it you know without a doubt that it’s hers. I love what she has done with my character, Teague. She set him perfectly and even captured the way he would speak his lines. The phrases sit the way my conversation would settle in. This is such a fun part for me because I’m not the handsome young love interest, or the hero—I’m the bad guy, the bully.

Cold Mountain has a great cast and I think we are all in agreement that we are not going to know the full scope, the length and breadth of the score, until we hear the orchestra. Jennifer is extremely accomplished, unusually prolific, and has a unique voice when it comes to writing for orchestra. Every one of us is excited about being in this production. There is an amazing amount of buzz about this opera. For a lot of Americans, this is our history. It’s very brutal. It’s startling to see the way we have treated each other at times.

Director Leonard Foglia has held our hands to the fire and we are telling the truth as history has presented it and as Charles Frazier has written it. Isabel Leonard as Ada, Emily Fons as Ruby, and Nathan Gunn as Inman have much longer parts than I do. Jennifer scored the mother lode when she landed those three as the leads.  I love conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya too. At the first rehearsal he said, “We’re going to find the best way of telling this story.” 

How do you like being the bad guy?

I’ve really enjoyed crawling into the psyche of Teague, a man who is completely free of remorse. He knows he is right, that God is on his side, and he has the power to exact justice as he sees fit. It’s a fun part to play and sing. There are a lot of people like that in this world, although most of them never escalate to being psychopathic murderers like Teague. He’s the fellow who smiles at you until you turn your head. Over the years I’ve often played romantic leading men who get the girl. Nobody likes getting the girl more than I do, but we all need variety, challenges, and opportunities to stretch.

No one sits in the practice room and finds out whether he can sing Siegfried, Tristan or Ahab. Somebody has to give you a shot and you have to be ready for it. I did not get those roles when I was 35. You have to hone your skills for many years. Now, I am much more comfortable playing the bad guy. I like stepping over to the dark side and exploring a demented psyche. I want to know what it feels like to be a bad guy because it’s so remote from my personality and the person I try to be in real life.

Will Cold Mountain be your seventh world premiere?

Jay Hunter Morris (Captain Ahab) in <i>Moby-Dick</i> © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera (2012)
Jay Hunter Morris (Captain Ahab) in Moby-Dick
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera (2012)
Yes, I appeared in: the second cast of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1998, Dead Man Walking in 2000, Doctor Atomic in 2005, Grendel in 2006, The Fly in 2008, and A Christmas Carol last year. That makes Cold Mountain number seven. Ben Heppner did the first performance run of Moby-Dick, but I feel like I have my hands in that, too. Over the years Ben has been one of my favorite tenors.

There was a clamoring for information and tickets to Moby-Dick that I’ve rarely experienced in the standard repertoire and I think it is well deserved. Cold Mountain and Moby share much of the same team: Lenny Foglia, director; Gene Scheer, librettist; Robert Brill, set designer; and Elaine McCarthy, projection designer. Lenny also directed me in Terence McNally’s 1995 Tony-winning play, Master Class, so I’ve known him for 22 years. 

Will Cold Mountain be recorded?

On July 16, Santa Fe Opera announced that performances of Cold Mountain will be recorded live for a future commercial release on Pentatone, a Dutch classical music label specializing in high-end, multichannel surround-sound recordings.

Are there any singers whose work has significantly influenced you?

I felt that Plácido Domingo set a great example for me. He was the guy I always loved to watch. I began listening to him when I was coming up and I watched him become one of the great singing actors. That is what I aspire to be. I’m not a stand-and-sing guy. I’ve never had that kind of voice. I like getting in there and being part of the drama. I also loved Ben Heppner. After a concert I heard him sing in the early nineties, I was completely smitten and went back stage. When I asked with whom he studied, he introduced me to Dixie and Bill Neill. I’ve studied with them ever since. 

How do you feel about working with Leonard Foglia on Cold Mountain?

I couldn’t be happier. Having known Lenny since we did Master Class, I trust him completely. He has squeezed the most out of me every time we’ve worked together. We’ll revisit Moby-Dick this fall in Los Angeles and next year in Dallas. I respect him immensely. Fine directors not only allow me to be the best actor I can be, they make me better. That is a great gift. More and more opera companies are turning to really first class stage directors. Lenny’s next job is a Broadway play with Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones. I am content to let him lead and mold my character into what he thinks it should be.  

If you could be a bass or a baritone for a single day, which role would you sing? 

That would be Scarpia, in Puccini’s Tosca, no doubt about it. I watched Timothy Noble in that role and I’ve never forgotten it. He was very still. He barely moved but he sucked in the full attention of every member of the audience. Finally, when he was ready to strike, he was a whirlwind of manic energy. Someday I want to act like that and sing like that. It’s a good card to have in one’s arsenal.

Do you get a bit of time with your wife and son between Cold Mountain at Santa Fe in August and Moby-Dick at Los Angeles in the fall? 

We’re having a great summer together here in Santa Fe. My wife, dancer Meg Gillentine, has had a lot of cool jobs lately. She did a Sondheim show, A Bed and a Chair, in New York with the Lincoln Center Jazz Festival and Wynton Marsalis. She also did Mother Courage and her Children with Kathleen Turner. Next summer she makes her maiden voyage into opera when she choreographs Peter Kazaris’s production of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie at Glimmerglass. I will also be at Glimmerglass as the artist in residence and I will sing Judge Danforth in Robert Ward’s The Crucible.

Our son, Cooper Jack, is six years old now and preparing for the big day when he makes his entrance into first grade. He’s healthy, smart, and a lot of fun. We couldn’t be happier. He’s still so innocent. The world hasn’t tainted him yet. He and Meg are the center of my life and my greatest source of joy. I’m really blessed to get to sing for a living and have this wonderful family.

What do you see yourself doing five years from now?

Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
I hope to be doing my best-ever singing. I feel like I’m getting better. I’m more coordinated. Over the past seven years I’ve sung massive, long and difficult parts in: Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, Die tote Stadt, Tristan, Moby-Dick and A Christmas Carol. I feel that I am just now ready to do my best work. The piece that really caught my fancy was Die tote Stadt. I sang it last year in Dallas and did a concert of it in Boston. It’s a remarkable work and I love that part, so I hope I will get more chances to sing it. It’s a great story and wonderful music. Next year I will sing in a new production of Tristan in Warsaw. I will also sing Siegfried in Houston as their Ring works towards completion. I want to sing Ahab every year and hope that continues. I think I’m still getting better in that part.  

Are you writing a sequel to the incredibly funny Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger?

I sure am! I need a few more amusing disasters to happen but I’m getting close to completing it. It makes me feel very vulnerable to have all that personal material out there. However, I am proud to hear from young people who have taken heart because they read my book. Maybe some folks don’t think I’m as serious and artsy as I should be, but in the words of Popeye the Sailor Man, “I yams what I yam.” I’m just gonna keep doing my best and I’ll write the stories that happen.