A Stranger to Opera, Gary Morris Kicks Off His Boots to Join Ronstadt in La Bohème

updated 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Texas-bred country star Gary Morris was asked by his manager if he'd consider singing Rodolfo opposite Linda Ronstadt's Mimi in the current New York Public Theater's homey production of Puccini's La Bohème, the burly performer's response was confusion. "La Bo what? What's that?" he asked. A few weeks later the Public Theater sent a note: "We should tell you we are considering someone else seriously." The letter "pissed me off," says Morris, 36, who gruffly told his manager, "Don't mess with me anymore about this. I'm not interested."

The letter wasn't his only reason for saying no. "My career was in high gear," says the twice-divorced, untwangy athlete-turned-tenor who has two best-selling albums on the country charts. To do La Bohème would have meant that he and his five-piece band would have to cancel three months of booked performances. Then there was the fear factor: "I had never heard or seen an opera," he says. Finally he agreed to go to New York and audition, "to get everyone off my back." He sent for the Bohème score (some 300 pages), for which English lyrics had been written. For one week between gigs he sat in a bunk at the back of his bus and went over the music with his keyboard player. Came audition day—"I was scared to death," Morris says. While singing he watched the faces of his six-member audience "go from blankness to smiles." Says Bohème director Wilford Leach, "I'd never heard of him. But there was such raw energy when he sang."

Morris' decision to play Rodolfo in the month-long engagement certainly wasn't a financial one, since he's paid minimum scale, $400 a week, for four grueling performances. "I felt that if I did this thing, perhaps we could bring credentials back to country music," he says. "We're capable of doing other things. I would like to alter the image that every country singer is some hick hillbilly stooge from the backwoods of 'Rooster Poot,' Arkansas." There was a stronger reason, perhaps: "I started falling in love with this thing." Because of the opera's high notes, he took his first vocal lessons and quit smoking. It also meant moving to New York from Nashville. At first Morris was amazed at the number of wackos in the Big Apple. "I'd walk down the street and see people talking to themselves, singing to themselves," he says. But after immersing himself in Bohème, he found himself joining the crowd. "I warm up on the subway every day," he says. "Nobody looks at me."

Morris has the opera's largest role, but Ronstadt commands the publicity. "Not to sound flip, but working with Linda didn't frighten me at all," Morris says. "She's as much out of her element doing this as I am." During rehearsals, the two sat backstage and sang Merle Haggard songs. Although Morris says she has "the most beautiful mouth," he only pretends to kiss Ronstadt onstage. His reasoning defies logic: "I guess I don't kiss her because everyone else would want to." Morris lives 20 miles outside Nashville with his 11-year-old son, Sam, the product of his first marriage, to his childhood sweetheart, a bank teller. "It lasted four years. It shouldn't have lasted four minutes," he says. "Sam hasn't seen his mother in two or three years. She just kind of went away." His other child, Matthew, 5, lives with Morris' second wife, who formerly sang with his band. It was her pregnancy that led to the bust-up of their three-year marriage, a fact, he says, that he isn't proud of. "I thought her being pregnant diminished the chances for us as a band getting a deal." Soon after, Warner Bros. Records submitted Morris' name to the Public Theater for Bohème. Most reviews praised Morris' teddy-bear presence and strong singing, while criticizing Ronstadt's bland acting and fragile voice.

Morris, who was born in Ft. Worth, began singing as a kid in the Southern Baptist Church. His father was a PBX installer, his mom a homemaker. He has a twin sister named Carrie. At Cisco Junior College in Cisco, Texas, he was torn between two loves: playing defensive back for the football team and singing with a trio he formed. The summer before he was to attend Texas Tech on a football scholarship, he and his trio went to Denver and didn't come back. In 1976 Jimmy Carter's staff hired Morris to perform at campaign stops. When Carter was elected, Morris played the White House several times. Warner Bros. Records signed him to a contract. This year Morris' The Wind Beneath My Wings was named Song of the Year by the Country Music Association.

Next, Morris says, he'd love to "bring opera to the Grand Ole Opry." And if he did, would anyone mind if he goofed up? Like the time Rodolfo, an impoverished painter living in 19th-century Paris, startled the cast and audience when he sang, "Y'all," when he meant, "You people." Says Morris, grinning, "It just slipped out." Maybe you can't take the boy out of the country.

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