Atlanta Opera Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun and tenor Jay Hunter Morris have worked together before on an Atlanta production of “The Flying Dutchman,” back in 2009, but a lot can change in eight years.
The two are now preparing once again for performances of Wagner’s classic work, opening Nov. 4 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Even pointing out that things are different this time around is something of an understatement.
Zvulun, who in 2009 was a visiting young director-for-hire working for the first time in Atlanta, now occupies the company’s top spot as general and artistic director. And Morris, who was a relatively unknown tenor playing the role of Erik in 2009, achieved enormous, surreally instantaneous fame in 2011. He’s returning to the same role in Atlanta now as a Grammy-winning opera star known the world over.
“It was trial by fire,” Morris says of his long journey to instant success. “It was Wagnerian.”
Shortly after his first Atlanta performances of “The Flying Dutchman,” Morris began working as an understudy for the role of Siegfried in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, far and away one of the most challenging roles in all of opera. “It’s so overwhelming, just how long it is,” says Morris. “There are no easy pages to learn or to sing. I was terrified.” At that point in his career, he had established a modest reputation performing the, by comparison, much easier roles of Puccini and Verdi. “I did not feel equal to the task. But here’s the thing for me: I didn’t have a choice. … (My wife and I) had a baby. I didn’t have any other work. I had to learn it.”
Morris says that throughout the difficult process, Zvulun, who had become a friend during their time working together on the 2009 “Dutchman” in Atlanta, was a reassuring and guiding force. “He played a very calming hand in my career as I was learning Siegfried,” recalls Morris. “He worked (as associate director) on the first ‘Ring’ cycle I covered in Seattle. I leaned on him. He talked me off the edge more than a few times.”
With Zvulun’s helpful encouragement, understudying in Seattle went well — Morris even had the opportunity to appear in the role for an important performance — and things likewise went well when he understudied for a production in Los Angeles. It was somewhat unsurprising, then, that the Metropolitan Opera called on him to understudy the role as the company prepared to premiere a new “Siegfried” in 2011. What was surprising, however, was the role eating up two tenors during rehearsals, with a third dropping out of the show — the largest, most expensive production in the Met’s long history of large, expensive productions — two weeks before opening night.
“By the time the call came for me, I was ready,” says Morris. “The thing about Siegfried is, he’s fearless as a character. I felt like that as a man.”
There’s nothing opera fans hate more than when a star cancels at the last minute, but as with sports fans, there’s nothing that entices their curiosity more than when an unknown rookie steps up to the plate. The coverage of the sudden replacement was, like that busy two weeks of preparation, intense, with the story quickly making international news.
“When they asked me (to cover), it was on a Friday night, and I had a rehearsal Saturday morning,” says Morris. “As I walked into the stage door at the Met, there were cameras there. Video cameras followed me around from that moment on. It was intense. And it was wonderful. It’s what we dream of.”
Fans were just as won over by Morris’ down-home humility about what was happening to him as by his ultimately triumphant performance opening night. Morris originally hails from Paris, Texas, and in many ways, he seems more like a friendly neighbor you’d run into at Home Depot than someone you’d find performing as Siegfried on one of the world’s great opera stages. “The ‘Ring’ cycle is a mighty big bite for a country boy,” is the way he puts it.
“The guy is an incredible singer,” Zvulun says of the strong qualities he recognized in Morris early on. “Very few people possess that kind of voice. The other thing is: He’s an incredible actor. He’s very committed and does a lot of work.”
Surprisingly, Morris, who has gone on to perform leading roles on the world’s great opera stages, says his life has changed very little since that strange rocket ride to fame.
“The best thing that happened after that is I got some more jobs,” he says. “At this point in my life, what I love, what I hunger for the most, are opportunities to sing great music with great orchestras and great conductors. This is what’s left for me. Any chance I get to do that, I’m savoring it.” And with a busy roster of performances around the world, there’s plenty to savor.
Morris and his wife, choreographer Meg Gillentine, who is working to create movements for the new production of “Dutchman,” moved to the Atlanta area from Los Angeles with their son to be near her family in Roswell a few years ago. Returning to the role this time around offers Morris the opportunity to work near home, a rare luxury for an opera singer.
Things have changed for both Morris and Zvulun, and in many ways, that change will be reflected in the production itself. Morris says he’s excited to approach the role in a different way: The lovelorn, jilted Erik can often come across as a milquetoast loser, but Morris says performing him as a good man and a good catch provides the story with more dramatic force.
No longer tied down to a dusty rental production built years ago, Zvulun and company are building sleek sets, costumes and multimedia projections from the ground up this time around and populating them with a stellar cast, which in addition to Morris, includes luminaries Wayne Tigges as the Dutchman and Melody Moore as Senta. Zvulun says the new elements will allow for a fresh retelling of “Dutchman” as a story about outsiders. And the Atlanta Opera will ultimately have a stake in ownership of the new production, which will first move on to its co-producers, Houston Grand Opera and Cincinnati Opera.
“I felt that all of the productions out there, including the one I directed in 2009, were too literal,” says Zvulun. “We’ve created this whole world with projections and multimedia that makes it very cinematic and very grand.”
The Atlanta Opera’s “The Flying Dutchman”
$35-$131. 8 p.m. Nov. 4; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7; 8 p.m. Nov. 10; 3 p.m. Nov 12. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org.