By Bob Bernard
Jay Hunter Morris first appeared in Los Angeles in 1994 at the Mark Taper Forum in Terrence McNally's Master Class, with Zoe Caldwell portraying Maria Callas. There, as the character Anthony Candolini, he sang the aria from Tosca, “Recondita armonia”. He first sang it (as scripted) somewhat affectedly (and was marked down), but then repeated it with such purity of feeling that his mentor, overcome with emotion, admitted, “I have never really listened to it before.” An enduring memory of Morris' is that of him, with Ms. Caldwell on his arm, regularly patronizing (what was then) Otto’s Restaurant after performances and schmoozing with the likes of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Moving ahead to 2005, Mr. Morris, in the role of Mario Cavaradossi, sang not only that aria, but the entire opera for LAO's student matinee performances of Tosca, also covering that role for the regular performances. Interestingly enough, Morris had never sung the complete opera until he returned here for that revival of this LAO favorite.
With Zoe Caldwell in “Master Class” With Susan Foster, his Tosca
For the 2005 stagings, Jay Hunter, mindful of the operatic lore associated with various on-stage anomalous happenings during performances of Tosca (the springy trampoline, the suicidal firing squad, etc.), took whatever precautions he could think of to assure that nothing untoward would happen to him. In Tosca the firing squad is typically composed of six to eight supers. In LAO’s production, some of the firing squad fire loud blanks; the rest fire wads of material that go, “Poof!” Jay Hunter recognized that, given the close quarters separating Cavaradossi from the Firing Squad and observing the high exit velocity of the Poofing material, reasoned that, if the Poofing material hit him below the waist, there was a finite possibility of an accidental impact transmogrifying him (at least on a temporary basis) from voice type tenor to that of countertenor. So, during rehearsals, Jay Hunter gave firm instructions to his Firing Squad, “Aim high, fellas!”
Jay is a native of Paris, Texas. Although a gritty small town, it boasts of an outstanding civic landmark: Las Vegas may have its London Bridge nearby in Lake Havasu City, but Paris, Texas, has its Eiffel Tower, an accurate, sixty-five foot replica ….. topped with a cowboy hat!
Over the years, Jay has acquired his own bag of stage tricks, one essential being the art of on-stage vocal cord lubrication. The need for this first manifested itself during a performance of Die Meistersinger. Jay Hunter, singing the role of Walter opposite the Hans Sachs of James Morris, had loaded up on a jug of Gatorade, the idea being to store enough energy to last the duration of this operatic marathon. A problem developed near the end of Scene 1 of the third act when the high concentration of sodium in the Gatorade began to dry out Jay’s throat. The cotton buildup in his mouth got so bad that Jay was almost driven to extemporize an emergency lube job by snatching away from James Morris the beer stein (containing water) that the senior Mr. Morris held on stage.
The above experience so traumatized him that Jay Hunter went to a small wad of chewing gum, secreted in the recesses of a cheek, as an insurance policy and peace-of-mind guarantor for those occasional lubrication needs. Of course, if one puts something in one’s mouth, there is always the chance that that something just might migrate downhill into the throat. This happened once in Frankfurt when, one night, a wad of Spearmint came south while Jay was pulling in a breath. After a brief game of ping-pong between larynx and pharynx, the wad was expelled via a spontaneous cough that caused the wad to fly out in a perfect arc, over the stage lights, and into the orchestra pit, where it came to rest on the trouser leg of a violist. --- Jay Hunter now uses tic-tacs for his emergency lubrication needs.
Jay Hunter enthused about the support composer Jake Heggie gave him for San Francisco Opera’s 2012 staging: “He supported the craziest Ahab, the most charismatic Ahab that I can bring.” Continuing re Ahab: “Here is one of the greatest characters in all of literature …. Everybody wants to play Ahab. Every actor, every singer, every dancer — we all want to kill somebody. We all want to kill ourselves. We all want to go crazy. We want the mad scene. We want to be dying of tuberculosis and lay there and sing the most beautiful music.”
Mr. Morris’s performance approach to a given role is refreshing: “I try not to put my self-worth up for public debate. My Mom once told me I was just fishin' for compliments when I read reviews, so now I don't. I go out there and try.”
A straight-shooter from Texas, if ever there was one.
Lead photo of Morris: Cory Weaver of SFO
Master Class photo: from the internet
Jay and Susan: Bob Bernard
Texas Eifel Tower: Tui Snider