James Morris initially studied with Forrest Barrett, before winning the first voice scholarship ever offered by the University of Maryland. On the advice of his mentor and distant relation Rosa Ponselle, who recognized his potential but did not think she would be the best teacher for him, Morris then enrolled at the Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore where he studied with Frank Valentino; and went on to further studies with Nicola Moscona at the Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts. After performing on stage with the Baltimore Civic Opera Company he made his formal operatic stage debut in 1967 with the Baltimore Opera as Crespel / Les Contes d’Hoffmann.
In 1970 Morris had his first Metropolitan Opera audition, but turned down the subsequent offer to join the Met Opera Studio. Moscona, who himself had had a long Met career, persuaded the management to re-audition Morris, and he was then offered a contract for 1971, making his debut as the King / Aida. He quickly became a useful member of the company, singing numerous bass parts such as Raimondo / Lucia di Lammermoor, Zuniga / Carmen, Monterone / Rigoletto, the Friar / Don Carlo, Calatrava / La forza del destino and Don Fernando / Fidelio. Gradually Morris’s roles at the Met became more substantial, including for instance Timur / Turandot, Frère Laurent / Roméo et Juliette (both 1974); Procida / I vespri siciliani, Padre Guardiano / La forza del destino, Colline / La Bohème (all 1975); Don Basilio / Il barbiere di Siviglia, Giorgio / I puritani and Alvise / La Gioconda (all 1976). During these years at the Met, Morris also made his European debut: at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1972 as Banquo / Macbeth, a production that was televised.
With a strong upper extension to his voice, Morris was able to tackle baritone as well as bass parts. Further roles at the Met included Figaro / Le nozze di Figaro and Ferrando / Il trovatore (both 1977); the title role in Don Giovanni, Baldassare / La favorita, Claggart / Billy Budd and Escamillo / Carmen (all 1978); the four villains / Les Contes d’ Hoffmann and Guglielmo / Così fan tutte (both 1982), this last being the role in which he made his Salzburg debut, with Muti conducting, in 1982.
The suggestion that Morris should sing Wotan was followed by a period of study with Hans Hotter. ‘If only I had had your voice,’ Hotter is reported to have said on hearing him. Morris undertook the Die Walküre Wotan with the Baltimore Opera in 1984 and the following year sang the title part in Der fliegende Holländer in Houston and Wotan / Das Rheingold in San Francisco. Having sung all three Wotans / Der Ring des Nibelungen for the first time in 1987, in Munich with Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting, he became closely associated with this role, singing it at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (1987), the Met (1989), the Royal Opera House, London (1991), Vienna (1995) and Chicago (1996) as well as recording it with Haitink and Levine.
Morris however avoided becoming type-cast in Wagner and continued to sing a wide range of roles, including (all at the Met) Fiesco / Simon Boccanegra (1986), Philip II / Don Carlo (1986), Méphistophélès / Faust (1990), Scarpia / Tosca and Amonasro / Aida (1991), Hans Sachs / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (2001), the title role in Boris Godunov (2004), Count Walter / Luisa Miller (2006), Prince Gremin / Eugene Onegin (2009), Claudius / Hamlet (Thomas) and Dr Schön / Lulu (2010) and Ramfis / Aida (2012).
At 6’5” in height, Morris is an extremely imposing figure on stage, singing with firm tone and a strong sense of line. He has appeared throughout the USA, for instance with the opera companies of Cincinnati, Miami, Philadelphia and New Orleans, as well as in concert, and has made numerous recordings.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).