The last time San Diegans encountered baritone Morgan Smith, he was singing the role of Starbuck inSan Diego Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, one of the few contemporary operas that have found favor with opera’s notoriously conservative audience. In addition to his vocal prowess, Smith brought gravitas to the whaling ship’s First Mate, a pivotal role that provided the requisite moral compass to the opera based on Herman Melville’s allegory of good, evil, and obsession.
It was not surprising, then, to discover the singer’s off-stage preoccupations include a desire to change and improve society though art, especially through his choice of roles to learn and musical works in which to perform. He is back in San Diego to sing Marcello in Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, a work that originally spoke to social inequity, but over time has become cherished more for its cloying romantic story than for its social commentary. It took Jonathan Larson’s contemporary re-casting of this opera into the musical Rent to restore the political edge of novelist Henry Murger’s impoverished urban youth.
Although Smith is in demand for the bread-and-butter standard repertory operas such as Carmen and La bohème, he keeps his performing schedule balanced with new works that project a clear social and ethical edge. He is eager to get started learning his role in Ricky Ian Gordon’s new opera Morning Star, which is slated to premiere in Cincinnati this June. Gordon’s work is based on New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, that shocking industrial inferno that took the lives of 146 workers, mainly recently settled Jewish and Italian immigrant women.
“In a way, I identify with my character, the brother of one of the workers who died in the fire, because my mother’s immigrant family settled on New York’s lower east side in that period, and my great grandfather was a baker who founded a union there,” Smith confided.When he leaves San Diego he will perform the baritone solo in Jake Heggie’s choral opera For a Look or a Touch in San Francisco with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus at Davies Symphony Hall. In 2007, Music of Remembrance, a Seattle arts organization dedicated to honoring musicians lost to the Holocaust, commissioned Heggie to write a work to honor the lives of homosexuals killed in the Holocaust, and Smith originated the baritone solo in that work’s premiere performance, presented by Music of Remembrance.
Heggie’s composition spoke to Smith at a deep level. “My connection with For a Look or a Touch is quite personal because I am Jewish, and I feel I have a duty to those who perished to tell their stories. This was also a turning point for me as a performer—to get out of my own way in order to play a gay man. There was also the work’s significance in its statement about human rights, as well as giving me the opportunity to challenge society through my performing.”
Heggie continued to expand the work after its premiere as a concert work with vocal soloist, and Smith stayed with it, singing his solo in each new incarnation. By 2013 it had grown into a staged version, presented by the Seattle Men’s Chorus with Smith and instrumentalists from the Seattle Symphony. At this point Smith came up with the idea of taking the work on tour to Germany, which he and the chorus did last year.
“At first we hesitated, because here we were a bunch of Americans going over to tell the Germans about their history. But we went, and we were given a most welcoming reception in Berlin, Dresden, Krefeld and Leipzig.”
With mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and other high profile opera singers, Smith is a staunch advocate of Jake Heggie’s vocal writing, both as a gift to singers and a boon to audiences. “Jake has what I call the ‘Holy Grail’ talent. His music sounds familiar and touches the listener, while at the same time it is completely new and inventive. He is a composer who has worked hard to understand the human voice.”
Heggie’s newest opera Great Scott will premiere at Dallas Opera this fall, and San Diego audiences will have their chance to hear this opera in the local company’s 2016 season.
Although some opera singers do not favor roles in new operas—they may never have a second chance to sing such a role, especially if the opera is not well received—Smith sees only the advantage.
“I love the freedom inherent in creating a new role,” he said. “To know that my rendition won’t be compared to that of my predecessors but instead judged on its own merits makes it easier to create a truly authentic and emotionally compelling performance.”
After singing in the new Ricky Ian Gordon Morning Star in early summer, Smith heads back to Seattle Opera to sing in another premiere, Jack Perla’s An American Dream, a work commissioned by the Seattle company based on a story of ethnic tensions in the Puget Sound area following World War II. For Smith, his return to Seattle Opera is a homecoming, because that company launched his opera career.
“After several years of incubation in the Seattle Opera young artist program, company director Speight Jenkins expressed his confidence in me and asked me to sing the role of Donald, a sailor, in the company’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd.”
When asked if the state of opera in America has changed since he began singing in Seattle, Smith sounds cautiously optimistic.
“I observe an enthusiasm for the art form, and its relevance is as healthy as it’s ever been in the U.S. However, I think people need to resist the inclination to question its societal importance every time there is a season of economic stress. I feel that the continued development of young audiences through music outreach and education, coupled with new works of thematic resonance, will ensure that opera continues to thrive.”
San Diego Opera’s 50th season continues with performances of Puccini’s La Bohème presented at the San Diego Civic Theatre on January 24, 27, 29, and February 1, 2015.