Taking a short vacation from Valhalla

Operatic bass James Morris is to sing 'Elijah' Thursday, and he's looking forward to the change from his more familiar role as Wotan in Wagner's 'Ring.'

Classical Music

June 04, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

James Morris spends a lot of time as a god.

For one night this week, he'll be the next best thing instead -- a prophet. The Baltimore-born bass is slated to sing the title role in Mendelssohn's oratorio "Elijah" with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society at Meyerhoff Hall Thursday evening, the major event during a four-day national choral conference being held here. It's an assignment Morris is looking forward to, as he does just about any opportunity to descend from the heights of Valhalla, where he is the world's leading interpreter of Wotan in Wagner's operatic marathon, "The Ring of the Nibelung."

That's not the only Wagnerian realm he frequents. His ripe, juicy tone and keenly expressive phrasing are likewise prized as the forlorn title character in Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," a role he has just been tackling in Austria.

Speaking by phone on "another boring day in Vienna" in between performances of "Dutchman," the singer sounds particularly pleased that the "Elijah" gig is coming up now. He hasn't had a chance to do this work in about eight years.

"It's going to be fun," Morris says. "It's not like 'Messiah,' where you basically just sing the notes. There's a character you can get into. It's very operatic, and the music is so beautiful."

Morris, 53, first started singing that music during student days in Baltimore, at church jobs. He hasn't lost his affection for the score, or for his hometown.

"I love getting back," says Morris, who lives in New Jersey with his wife, mezzo-soprano Susan Quittmeyer, and their 3-year-old twins. "I've enjoyed performing with the Baltimore Opera, which certainly has come up in the world. And I'd love to be asked to sing with the Baltimore Symphony more often.

"I still have family in Baltimore, friends, people I went to school with. It's a great city. As is so often the case, you don't appreciate a place until you leave it -- the grass-is-always-greener syndrome. Baltimore has all the hustle and bustle you need, but is also more laid-back and, in some way, more civilized."

It was one of Baltimore's more civilizing forces, opera legend Rosa Ponselle, who helped point Morris in the direction of what has turned into an exceptionally successful career. After being disappointed with his studies at the University of Maryland in 1965-1966, where he received the music department's first voice scholarship ("I wasn't really getting what I needed; the school was geared more to turning out music teachers"), Morris was introduced to Ponselle.

The soprano, long retired from the stage, had stopped teaching by that point but agreed to start again for the promising young bass.

"I didn't realize at the time who she was," Morris says. "If I had, I probably would have been too nervous to meet her. She was such a gracious lady who opened her house and her heart. She would help whoever wanted help. She was always willing to give of herself. Unfortunately, [famous] people quite often attract a lot of hangers-on.

"But there were fun times out there at her villa. There was always a party going on, people sitting around the swimming pool or watching TV. And sometimes we would all end up at a rathskeller, and every now and then Rosa would burst into song. Our jaws would drop."

Ponselle paved the way for Morris to land small roles with the Baltimore Opera. In 1967, he advanced to a substantial assignment, that of Crespel in Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann." Heading the cast were such luminaries as Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle. Morris caught the attention of conductor Julius Rudel, who thought the young man ought to move north and join the New York City Opera. But Morris didn't know any of that, because Rudel had mentioned the idea to Ponselle first.

"She turned it down for me," Morris says. "She told him, 'He's not ready. Hands off! Don't you dare!' It upset me when I found out later. I thought, 'Geez, why can't she let me say no?' But I probably would have said yes. Rosa knew what she was doing."

That lesson in caution and patience has never been lost on Morris. If he had yielded to the temptation to sing too much, too soon, chances are he would never have blossomed into such a reliable and versatile artist. The size and warmth of his voice, the sureness of his technique and the thoughtful stylishness of his interpretations have enabled him to achieve remarkable distinction on the opera stage in Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Gounod, as well as Wagner.

In addition to gaining valuable insights from Ponselle, Morris further honed his talent at the Peabody Institute for two years. "It's a wonderful school," he says, "but at the time it was geared more to instrumentalists and music scholars."

In 1968, his teacher at Peabody, Frank Valentino, arranged for Morris to audition at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, and that did the trick.

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