For some baby boomers, the past comes back to haunt them. But for Roswell, Georgia’s Jay Hunter Morris, an opera star who has sung at The Met, the past recently came back to charm him.
The year was 1983 and I was working full-time at Chief Auto Parts in my hometown of Paris, Texas. I was also busy failing music theory, voice, and beginner piano at the local junior college.
My buddy Patrick suggested that an evening out of town might be in order to clear the bad vibes, reset the Etch-a-Sketch. I was swift to agree. He had heard rumors of a new musical produced by The Dallas Theater Center called Cotton Patch Gospel, a modern-day rendering of the story of Jesus, but this time around, his birth lands him in rural Georgia. It had music and lyrics by Harry Chapin, and starred the man who co-wrote it, Tom Key, who went on to be the longtime Artistic Director of Atlanta’s “Theatrical Outfit.”
Growing up as the son of a Southern Baptist minister, Cotton Patch Gospel resonated deeply with my fledgling faith and the values I held true and dear. Its Bluegrass leanings fell easily on my country-fried ears and, Tom’s performance in particular, left an indelible stamp on my proverbial heart.
We waited at the stage entrance that night, hoping to secure an autograph, even just a word. We got much more. Tom shook my hand and with his huge smile welcomed me like an old friend. He listened to my prattlings with patience, and appeared to have no idea of the impact that evening would have on me, and possibly many others. I recognize that a stage door interaction offers flimsy evidence, but he impressed me as a man of great humility. I returned several times more, finding new inspiration with each performance.
Now wouldn’t it be loverly if I had straightened right up on the instant, mended my ways, become an obedient, studious, well- mannered young man and flipped all my F’s to A’s? Not so. I failed those classes. In fact my wife Meg will tell you that I am still not particularly well-mannered nor obedient.
But on that night, questions that linger with me to this very day were planted deeply into the recesses of my young mind: Can I do that? Can I find my way into a life on the stage? Can I write and sing and tell stories and, if I do, will anyone care to hear?
It’s a miracle! I’ve somehow managed to carve out a career in entertainment for more than 30 years. I enjoyed a nice run on Broadway, collected a few shiny awards, and have sung with many of the best opera companies and orchestras in the world. No one more surprised than I. Please don’t think I boast, I’m just setting the table.
So fast forward to a Sunday in 2016, when you will find me entering the stage door at Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Center. For those of you who have not been tutoring sixth grade math during the pandemic, that’s 33 years later. On that Sunday afternoon I was to sing at a special event for the Atlanta Opera.
I stroll down the hallway, find my dressing room, and guess whose name is on the door? Tom Key. Wait, what? Knowing that rehearsals are on right there for Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, I surmise that this can’t be the same guy. In an opera? I find the stage manager, riddle him my query, and learn that indeed it was, it is, the same guy. What seems like lifetimes later, I am sharing a dressing room with one of the heroes of my youth.
Then in the Fall of 2020, my little family was going stir crazy, like everybody else in the world.
Our son Cooper has spent his sixth-grade year weathering the trials and tribs of virtual schooling, as have his parents. And it ain’t pretty. So we took a trip. We joined our best friend, rented two RVs, and drove to the Pacific and back. We were dry-camping in Red Rock Canyon, outside of Sedona, Arizona, when another friend, Tomer Zvulun, phoned. He’s the boss at the Atlanta Opera and has orchestrated one of the few showbiz success stories of the pandemic. Last Fall they gave live performances safely, to a very hungry public.
Tomer laid out his intentions for a Spring season, and asked if I might be interested in taking part. He offered me the role of Mac the Knife in the Brecht/Weill 3Penny Opera. It is one plum of a part. If I am honest, I was hesitant. Singing and acting in a mask? In an outdoor tent, in the throes of a global pandemic? I suspect Tomer sensed my reticence, so he threw down his ace: “Tom Key will be the narrator.”
So now, I enter the newly erected tent outside the Cobb Energy Center, and there I rehearse with my newly found old friend Tom. Opera director Tomer made adjustments to the end of the show, so that Tom and I sing the final song together.
If you ask Siri to define the word “kismet,” she might say “divinely ordained destiny.” Now doesn’t this feel just a little bit like kismet? I concede that this is not Kobe and Jordan, sharing the court. Or Tiger and Jack. But in my little world, it kinda is.