Glad to be Good

After singing his share of villainous roles, baritone Jeff Morrissey is happy to take the part of Sharpless in Boheme Opera’s Madama Butterfly.

By: Susan Van Dongen
   After playing the role of the villainous Iago in Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, baritone Jeff Morrissey is happy to take on the part of Sharpless in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Through the years, the part of the American consul has evolved into the voice of reason, advising lovestruck Lt. Pinkerton to think twice before marrying the young Japanese geisha, Cio-Cio San.
   "I hope people see it that way," Mr. Morrissey says, speaking by cell phone on his way to an appointment in Manhattan. "I sometimes think (Sharpless) could have done more to prevent the situation and stop the tragedy."
   However, stopping the "tragedy" in Madama Butterfly would be like re-writing Ebenezer Scrooge to be a sensitive guy who donates 10 percent of his income to the Cratchit family. It just isn’t going to happen, and thank goodness for that. Lt. Pinkerton has to abandon Cio-Cio San, leaving her to wait dutifully for his return. Otherwise, there would be no need for her to sing "Un bel Di (One Fine Day)," one of opera’s greatest arias.

Jeff Morrissey will join New York City Opera’s Yunah Lee and the Metropolitan Opera’s Ronald Naldi in Madama Butterfly at the War Memorial in Trenton April 26 and 28.

   Music lovers can hear and see this classic love story unfold when Boheme Opera presents Madama Butterfly at Trenton’s Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, April 26 and 28. Andrew Chown will direct the performance, starring New York City Opera’s Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio San and the Metropolitan Opera’s Ronald Naldi as Pinkerton. Artistic director Joseph Pucciatti will conduct the Boheme Opera Orchestra and Chorus.
   The cunning Venetian soldier Iago was Mr. Morrissey’s first role. He assumed the mantle of Otello’s betraying friend while pursuing graduate studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. The college has a notable opera program, with outstanding facilities.
   "The stage in the performing-arts center is actually a foot wider than the (Metropolitan Opera’s)," Mr. Morrissey says. "I don’t know of many professional or regional companies that have as large a season as we did at Indiana. Once it starts in September, you can go to the opera every weekend.
   "It’s such an ideal atmosphere for opera performers and opera fans, especially when you consider I.U. is in the middle of the Midwest."
   A singer’s life in Bloomington can be so idyllic, many students never leave. "There are a lot of perennial students," Mr. Morrissey says.
   He managed to disentangle himself and returned to New York. Mr. Morrissey had interrupted studies at Juilliard to work privately at I.U. with the late Margaret Harshaw, whom he originally met in Princeton. During the summer, Ms. Harshaw would visit Westminster Choir College of Rider University to give lessons and special seminars. Mr. Morrissey still commutes to Princeton to study with WCC faculty member Laura Brooks Rice, another one of Ms. Harshaw’s students.
   Ironically, Mr. Morrissey grew up in the least likely place to nurture a future operatic vocalist — Bristol, Va. Located in the southwestern part of the state close to the border with Tennessee, Mr. Morrissey says his hometown was more likely to produce stars in country-western music.
   "It’s definitely not the mecca of opera," he says. "We were exposed to a lot of music, though. I started singing in church and had a neighbor who played piano, so she’d play while I sang. I did a lot of musical theater, shows like ‘Oliver’ and ‘The Music Man.’"
   Mr. Morrissey began his serious musical studies as a vocal performance major at Shenandoah Conservatory in Westminster, Va. He had never seen an opera and wasn’t particularly interested in all that emoting in a foreign language, but a staging of an American opera set in Appalachia got his attention.
   "The characters were singing in my dialect," he says. "I thought, ‘Hmmm. Maybe I can do this.’"
   After Shenandoah, Mr. Morrissey did graduate work at Converse College, then went on to Juilliard’s Opera Center.
   "It’s a step between the university and a professional career," he says. "It was all on a scholarship, which was very fortunate for me. It was a nurturing environment, especially for a guy from the South in New York for the first time."
   It was the second time around in New York where Mr. Morrissey found an agent and began to get plum roles in The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, La Boheme, I Pagliacci and Turandot. Last summer, he appeared as (court minister) Ping in the Opera Festival of New Jersey’s production of Turandot, which won rave reviews from regional and national critics.
   Mr. Morrissey has also performed extensively abroad and especially likes the pace of life in southern Italy.
   "They have the right idea," he says. "They get up early, go to work, and come home for lunch and a nap in the afternoon. Then they work some more, have a leisurely dinner and take a nice stroll afterward."
   Although he enjoys national and foreign travel, Mr. Morrissey is especially pleased that he will be able to commute to the Patriots Theater from his apartment in New York City.
   He also hopes to add more good guys — like Sharpless — to his repertoire as a baritone, though he admits the villains are often more interesting to play.
   "The tenor usually gets the girl," Mr. Morrissey says. "Sharpless doesn’t have an aria, but he plays an amazing part in the story. My real pleasure is just being surrounded by the music, and this is really extraordinary music."
Madama Butterfly will be sung at the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Lafayette and Barrack streets,
Trenton, April 26, 8 p.m., and April 28, 3 p.m. Tickets cost $20-$55. Pre-concert talk 45 minutes before curtain.
For information, call (609) 581-7200. On the Web: