WHEN James P. Morris was a student at the University of Maryland in 1966, he made his operatic debut in the Baltimore Opera Company's "La Boheme". He played a guard who uttered the immortal Act III line, "Vengo" (I'm coming).
Later that season came a sudden call for his more official debut as Crespel in the company's "The Tales of Hoffman." It was a bigger part and his first step toward a magnificent career in French and Italian bass roles.
In 1984 Morris entered the much heavier and denser Germanic world singing Wagner's Wotan in the Baltimore company's "Die Walkure". The world soon discovered Morris was an equally effective Wagnerian.
Now the celebrated native son says "vengo" again, this time from London. The bass is in Baltimore for several homecomings: one in his hometown with his family, another at The Lyric Opera House where it all began, and still another with Italian opera as King Philip II in the BOC's first production of the season, Verdi's "Don Carlo" at 8:15 p.m. Saturday.
Morris, 44, recently took a break from singing Wotan and The Wanderer in a murderous Covent Garden schedule of two back-to-back Wagner "Ring" cycles in London.
"It's going to be great to come back home and do something besides Wagner," Morris said by phone. "I always feel that the Italian and French are my operatic roots and I don't want to be pigeonholed. So when I sign a Wagner contract, I always insist on something else, like in Munich, "Don Giovanni" and "The Ring."
"When I started Wagner in 1984, I said I would stop if it interferred with the Italian and French bel canto roles. There's no damage yet. In fact, the Wagner helped expand the voice for other music. But when they wanted me to complete the second Wagner cycle, I said 'I'm sorry, I'm booked in Baltimore.' So it's good to come back home. "As usual, I'll be staying with my mother and sister and her husband," the Towson High graduate said.
Mother, Geraldine Peppler Morris, who lives in Towson, remembers how it all started, at Dumbarton Junior High School, when 14-year-old Jimmy sang one line as a king in a Christmas pageant in 1961.
"People later looked at us and asked 'Did you know [he could sing]? We looked at each other and said, 'No.' We were as surprised as everyone else. Soon after he began voice lessons with the late Forrest Barrett. Later he sang at Grace Methodist Church.
"Opera of course was the last thing he thought about as a teen-ager. It was always rock 'n' roll. We always hoped he'd turn that music off. Of course, when we played opera, he would ask 'What in the world are you listening to?' "
Geraldine Peppler Morris recalls when the retired operatic diva and teacher Rosa Ponselle first noticed Morris a few years later. "The first time, she heard him sing, all she said was 'Ezio Pinza.' [The famed Italian bass fashioned a big career here.] She then took Jimmy on as a student."
Morris' career took off after he spent a year at College Park, two years at Peabody Conservatory and finally a period at the Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts. At age 23, he signed with the Metropolitan Opera Company as its youngest male singer ever.
Morris' father, James D. Morris, died in 1973, Geraldine said, "but he saw Jimmy make his debut at The Met in 1971 as the King in 'Aida'. His father was so happy."
Mother and son call each other before and after new productions. She sees three of the four performances in Baltimore, and said the nicest thing about her son is "He's still so down to earth and nice as ever."
The careers of Morris and his wife, singer Susan Quittmeyer, "don't overlap much", he said. Quittmeyer concentrates on Strauss and Mozart roles. Occasionally they sing together; they did a "Marriage of Figaro" in Philadelphia last year.
Spiros Argiris, music director of both Spoleto music festivals, in Italy and Charleston, makes his Baltimore Opera conducting debut. Roberto Oswald is the director and Anibal Lapiz, the costume designer.
Tenor Antonio Barasorda sings Don Carlo, replacing the previously scheduled Icelandic tenor Kristjan Johannsson, who canceled to help open a new opera house in Genoa. Another singer, Robert McFarland, is sick with laryngitis, and was replaced by baritone Yalun Zhang.
Morris' old friend bass Jerome Hines in his 50th year in opera sings the Grand Inquisitor. Soprano Ealynn Voss sings Elisabetta de Valois, mezzo Sharon Graham is Eboli and soprano Nancy Elledge is in the trouser role of Tebaldo, the Queen Elisabetta's page.
The Baltimore Opera Company will present "Don Carlo" at the Lyric Opera House Saturday, Wednesday and Oct. 25 at 8:15 p.m. and Oct. 27 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $16 to $74. Call 685-0692 for more information.