Singer will revisit hometown and the Verdi repertoire

THE RETURN OF JAMES MORRIS

October 13, 1991|By Eric Siegel

To opera singer James Morris, there's "no feeling in the world like singing Wagner."

But the 44-year-old Baltimore native -- whose commanding portrayal of Wotan, ruler of the gods, in Wagner's four-part epic "The Ring of the Nibelung" has made him arguably the foremost Wagnerian of his day -- also knows there can be too much of a good thing.

"You can't live on Wagner alone," Mr. Morris said recently by telephone from London, where he was performing the "Ring" cycle at Covent Garden. "You need to have a little Verdi, a little Puccinni, a little Mozart."

And that is one reason Mr. Morris said he was "anxious" to arrive in Baltimore, where he will play King Phillip in the Baltimore Opera Company's season-opening production of Verdi's "Don Carlo," which has its first performance Saturday.

"I grew up in the bel canto repertoire," he said. "I love the Verdi repertoire. It's emotional and inspiring.

"Wagner's like a full symphony. You can listen without the singers. Verdi is an accompaniment. You need the singers."

The role is one he has played many times -- but not recently.

"The last time was about five years ago, at the Met," he said. "It's like Don Giovanni, another role I've done many times. You get to the point where you get tired of it and you have to back away. Then when you do come back to it, it's like an old friend. You approach it fresh and you're bound to find new things in it. If you just keep doing it, you reach a little plateau with your interpretation."

Of course, the repertoire won't be the only familiar element when Mr. Morris returns here. The youngest of three children, he graduated from Towson High, studied at the Peabody and the University of Maryland and was tutored by the late, great Rosa Ponselle. His mother lives with his sister and her husband in Towson, where he will stay during his run in "Don Carlo"; his other sister lives in Cumberland.

His relationship with the BOC goes back a quarter of a century when he made his debut with what was then known as the Baltimore Civic Opera as Crespel in "The Tales of Hoffmann" while he was still an undergraduate at Maryland. And it was with the BOC that he first sang Wotan, the role that has given him such acclaim, in a 1984 production of "Die Walkuere," part of the "Ring" cycle.

Since then, the bass-baritone with the imposing 6-foot-4, 240-pound physique and more imposing voice has sung Wotan on television; in separate recordings by Angel/EMI and Deutsche Grammophon; in complete cycles at Munich, London, San Francisco and the Met; and in individual performances of parts of the cycle too numerous for him to even remember.

"I've got Wagner coming out of my ears," he joked.

More seriously, he said "It's amazing what's happened" in the seven years since he first did the role. "It's a matter of timing, of being in the right place at the right time. If you sing Wagner, the opera world sort of pounces on it. The last couple of years have been sort of a heyday for 'The Ring.' That's all they want to have you for. European audiences, in particular, seem to think, 'You're a Wagner singer.' I've taken great pains to try and point out I'm a singer who does Wagner."

It is probably no coincidence that the popularity of performances of "The Ring" has dovetailed with what Mr. Morris called a "very exciting stage" in opera.

"There are always people bad-mouthing" opera, he said. "But there are more companies than there ever have been in Europe and the States. And the repertoire they're doing is not just the old warhorses."

He feels televised performances, special student performances and opera-in-the-schools programs are widening the genre's appeal. "If I had had that, I would have developed an appreciation much earlier than I did," he said.

At the same time, he was acutely aware of the financial difficulties faced by the BOC last year, which had an emergency fund-raising campaign to stave off bankruptcy in mid-season before finishing the year in the black.

"I was worried there wasn't going to be a [BOC] season this year. Michael Harrison seems to have pulled a rabbit out of the hat," he said, referring to the company's general director.

"We [singers] like to think in our profession that we are not touched by the fluctuations in the economy," he added. "We may not be directly touched in the sense of losing jobs. But when opera companies are affected, that works its way down to us."

Mr. Morris, who last appeared with the BOC was as Baron Scarpia in Puccini's "Tosca" 2 1/2 years ago, will next appear with his hometown opera company in a production of "Macbeth" three years hence, the first time he has appeared in that opera. Among his coming engagements are productions of Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann" and Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" with his wife, mezzo-soprano Susan Quittmeyer.

And, oh yes, there's another "Ring" cycle on the horizon, this time in Chicago.

"I want to try new things and develop new ways of expressing old things," he said. "The way I do Wotan now is not the way I'll do it 10 years from now.

"I want to try and keep improving and to keep going as long as I can."

'Don Carlo'

When: Oct. 19, 23 and 25 at 8:15 p.m.; Oct. 27 at 3 p.m.

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Tickets: $20 to $58 Oct. 19, 25 and 27; $16 to $53 Oct. 23.

Call: 685-0692.

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