Theatre abounds with tales of understudies coming on at the last minute and singing their way to glory. It’s mostly myth — but for tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who sings Siegfried in the opera currently on at all Cinema Nouveaus, it’s reality.
Siegfried is reputed to be the most difficult tenor role in all of opera. There’s quite a lot of upper-range singing, and even for a Wagnerian work, it’s long. It’s also somewhat athletic — Siegfried is supposed to be a courageous but not very bright youth, so the part calls for a tenor who can leap about the stage, climbing mountains and killing dragons. At the same time, he needs enough experience to pace himself while singing some quite difficult music.
The first tenor signed for the role sensibly changed his mind, and the second one fell ill two weeks before the opening.
Enter Morris, who seems to have waited his entire life for this chance. He’d understudied the role in companies in the US and Europe and had actually sung it a few months ago with the San Francisco Opera.
How did he approach this daunting task? In a film clip during an interval, we see him walking to his dressing room after a rehearsal, and he’s smiling broadly. “Man,” he says, “this is fun!”
The interviews and slices of backstage life slotted into the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series can be fascinating. In one, Morris tells Reneé Fleming that it wasn’t so long ago that he was selling rollerblades on Central Park West, and during a two-month break he went home to Paris, Texas and handed out towels at the local health club.
“It’s a long way from Paris, Texas, where I grew up,” he says, in a Texas drawl, “to singing Siegfried at the Metropolitan Opera.”
Reviewers have praised his singing as “admirably clean and honest”, his performance as “fresh and energetic”. He doesn’t look 17, but he doesn’t look mid-40s either, and he is remarkably handsome.
Deborah Voigt is one of the few dramatic sopranos who can manage a credible Brünnhilde close up, whether bounding on to the stage in Die Walküre and singing “Hojotoho” or, in Siegfried, falling in love with a dolt who thinks she might be his mother. The rest of the cast gives thrilling performances, from Eric Owens as the evil dwarf Alberich to Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, who was born to sing Wotan/The Wanderer, as he concedes in one of those interval interviews.
One caveat — too much of the opera takes place at night and the first act is set in a dimly lit workshop. A bit more light on the subject might cut some of the heavy atmosphere, but it would also cut out some of the eyestrain.
Siegfried is billed as five and a half hours, which is quite a lot of Wagner. But because operas in the series are filmed in real time, there are long intervals. During two 35-minute breaks one has the chance to nip out for a quick cappuccino, but those who linger risk missing some of the backstage interviews.
The final opera in the Ring cycle, Götterdämmerung, is scheduled for early March. There will be plenty of singing before then. The next production, opening on December 9, is Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, based on Gandhi’s life in South Africa. It’s sung in Sanskrit.
Siegfried shows at Cinema Nouveau until December 2. See more clips from the Metropolitan Opera on their YouTube channel.