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Singer goes from rock 'n' roll to Nanki-Poo

Sunday, September 21, 2003

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

What's cool?

When John Matthew Morgan was a kid in a Louisiana high school, nothing seemed cooler than singing in a local rock band.

"It's that visceral connection with the audience," he says. "It's so palpable you can cut it with a knife. I loved it."

Morgan checks his Nanki-Poo costume at the Public. "If you can name a town in Western Pennsylvania, I've sung there, "he says. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Through a series of happy accidents and a lot of hard work, however, the Southern rock 'n' roll junkie wound up belting out opera classics on stages all over the world. At 28, Morgan has a busy freelance schedule that takes him as far as South Korea and as close as the O'Reilly Theater in Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado."

So how do you get from rock 'n' roll to Nanki-Poo? "Well," he says, laughing, "when you put it like that ... I was just singing in churches. I guess I didn't realize that there were musicals and operas out there. I thought you either sang in church and school or you were Elvis Presley."

Excited by the Presley possibilities, Morgan started taking voice lessons at 15. He learned he was a tenor before he found out what the term means.

"I learned that the way my voice is made up, I was better suited to doing [classical music] than other genres," he says. "My voice teacher gave me video tapes of the first Three Tenors concert in Italy. I popped it in -- I had no idea what it was. There's Pavarotti singing something from 'Tosca.' I'd never experienced anything like that. I was sitting there thinking, 'How is he making that sound?'"

Every morning for a summer, Morgan played the tapes. The same year, he found out that people can get scholarships to go to college to sing. After graduating from Louisiana State University, he landed his first professional job in "Turandot" in that bastion of operatic excellence, Albuquerque, N.M.

John Matthew Morgan has the finishing touches done to his hair and makeup for his portrayal of Nanki-Poo in "The Mikado." (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

"I got a job from a company out of Raleigh, N.C., touring nationwide," he says. "I've been singing full time ever since: Milwaukee, Portland, St. Paul, some place in Nevada."

Pittsburgh Opera offered Morgan a two-year gig in its Opera Center young artist program, and also gave him a role in many operas the company performed in that stretch. He was listed in the program as Matt Morgan.

"I did shows in Uniontown, Sewickley ... If you can name a town in Western Pennsylvania," he says, "I've sung there. Singing in all the places I've been, I've come to see how much culture is out there in places where you wouldn't expect it to be," he says. "I think that says something about this genre. I don't see it as better than pop, and I think that 'cool' depends on your perspective.

"You have, say, Queens of the Stone Age -- a really cool band, awesome look, great songs. The guy gets up on stage to sing, and maybe one night his voice is a little raspy. You're not going to mark it against him. That raw sound is a part of the music."

The difference between classical and popular genres, he says, is merely "a level of refinement."

"With opera or music theater, if the tenor comes out and opens his mouth to sing and goes AWKKKKK, it's a huge mark against him," he says. "Also, in opera you have to be proficient in several languages and as an actor. You have to know how to project energy, to sing un-miked with a 60- or 80-piece orchestra and be heard. You have to learn through years of study how to project your voice without screaming your head off and hurting yourself, and last for two or three hours."

Morgan says he sees himself as a musical "historian," preserving an art form that has survived for centuries. In musical theater performances, such as "The Mikado," it's no different.

"I think of it as the same thing," he says. "Gilbert and Sullivan wrote these perfect operettas. The way Ted Pappas is approaching this, we're trying to come as close as possible to re-creating what they originally intended. It's a real challenge, and the more you get into [the show], the more you have to respect what these guys were doing."

So, as a former rock 'n' roller, is "The Mikado" cool?

"The coolest," he says.


John Hayes can be reached at jhayes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1991.

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