The Long Story
Once upon a time...
I was born Matthew Patrick Morris, third son in a good Catholic family to Drs. Frank and Colette Morris in Baltimore, Maryland on February 21st, 1985. Like my mother tells me, or at least I choose to remember that she told me, the third time was the charm.
Perhaps my first charm was to be born with the sex my parents had intended. How ironic this was, I would discover later. My brothers Michael and Nicholas were not so generous. Their birth belied their chosen family names: Michele and Nicolette, and my parents were forced by irrevocable evidence to reverse course to Michael and Nicholas. I on the other hand was conceived like Athena from the head of Zeus, sprouting forth from my parents’ imagination and elsewhere as they had intended: a boy named Matthew Patrick Morris, a name chosen not because of family ties but because my parents had “always liked the sound of it.” And so my parents bestowed upon me one of the first of many gifts: a stage name. I never looked back.
“After a long day at work, there’s nothing like the sound of silence.” - my mother
I grew up in a house with no music. After a long day of screaming children for my mother the pediatrician or cranky seniors for my father the cardiologist, my parents preferred to listen to AM radio or nothing at all. My older brothers spent all of their time practicing and playing lacrosse and soccer. My extended family was the same: my uncles were doctors and chemistry teachers. My grandfathers were a micro-biologist and an OBGYN. No one sang. No one played an instrument. No one played music in their house. No one went to the theater. I was surrounded by practicality.
Maria von Trapp brought music back into the house only when “Edelweiss” appeared from my VHS player. I lived on a regular diet of The Sound of Music, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Mary Poppins, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, Sword in the Stone, Cinderella, and Robin Hood. Bedknobs and Broomsticks starring Angela Lansbury was my particular favorite. I had a broomstick with which I would watch the movie, and in pure Angela Lansbury idolatry, when threatened by my older brothers, I would often take a cue from Angela and threaten in return to turn my brothers into a “nice white rabbit”. This did not go over well. My worship at the altar of Angela led me to be one of the only 6 year olds I’ve known who negotiated a later bed time on Tuesday evenings so he could watch Murder She Wrote from 8-9pm. My television was my education.
It seems I was not content to leave performing to the people behind the screen for long: my family shares that before I can remember I astounded them by putting on “shows” at the fireplace, demanding everyone’s un-divided attention. I also begged for piano lessons. They ignored me thinking this would soon pass. I was, after all, one of them. In the immortal words of Gandalf, however, "none shall pass".
As William Carlos Williams says, “Everything depends upon a red wheelbarrow”. Take out the “red wheelbarrow” and replace it with “a teacher”, and you have more of my story. In first grade, I started at Gilman School, a non-denominational all boys preparatory academy in Baltimore, and my music teacher Sue Dickey saw something in me. She called in my parents for a conference. She told them that I had a beautiful voice, perfect pitch, and needed to be in piano lessons and choir. My parents were shocked, but as they have proven time and time again, loving and supportive of this alien musical child. They enrolled me in piano lessons, and I auditioned and was accepted into the Children’s Chorus of Maryland a few weeks later. The choir met weekly not only to sing but for classes on the Kodàly method. I was in heaven.
I continued with music and attending Gilman from first through twelfth grade. In middle school, Gilman puts on a yearly musical with the all girls preparatory school across the street: Roland Park Country School. My friends were auditioning, and so I thought, “why not?” The show was Anything Goes. I was a boy soprano in sixth grade and was sure I would get the lead. I got chorus. I had a costume, my first “dance call”, entrances to worry about, girls to talk to in the wings. Heaven. A light turned on in the attic of my insides. I did Bye, Bye Birdie the following year, still a boy soprano, playing Harvey Johnson. My insides got a few more lights. In 8th grade, my voice changed five weeks before the auditions. I started taking voice lessons and for two weeks my voice dwindled down from a four octave boy soprano to a one octave awkward crack every second baritone. My family prepared me for the worst, sharing the received wisdom that perhaps that was the end of my singing. It felt like all the lights in the world might go out. Five weeks later, my voice had opened back up to a medium ranged baritone, and I was cast as my first lead role in a musical: Curly in Oklahoma. It felt like the toddler watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks ran screaming with laughter through the inner rooms of my heart turning on every light he could see, singing a strange mash-up of “Age of not Believing” with “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin”. This was it.
It was, and it wasn't. "The Lord giveth, and he taketh away", or sometimes giveth again what you don't wanteth. Perhaps at this point it might be appropriate to name the rainbow elephant in the room: I'm gay. I grew up an Irish-Italian Catholic chubby kid who ate celery sticks at birthdays while other kids ate cupcakes, and prayed fortnightly that if God would just make me thin, I'd never ask for anything again. Well, when I hit puberty and my voice dropped for Oklahoma!, I also grew six inches without gaining pound, and suddenly found myself, a life-long character actor, in a leading man's body. Thin: check. Thanks God! At the same time, I abruptly realized I was attracted to men. No thanks God! ..."Ahem, God, about that not asking for anything else thing?"
This was 1999, and while Will & Grace on TV had just brought gay into my living room, coming out was still a scary and lonely road. Except I learned I wasn't so alone, no, not on Grindr or match.com (not that there's anything wrong with that), but one particularly painful night when I wasn't sure how I would get through, God showed up: not the idea I had been taught about, not the Michelangelo painting white man in a beard (although his muscles ARE fabulous), but some pulsating, real, personal, love, and energy. He/she/it (or Team God as I sometimes like to say, encapsulating all the beautiful people, animals, things, and places from which it can shine forth) got me through the next few years and beyond. So I decided then and there to dedicate my life to figuring out what that beautiful energy that saved me was, and how I could better serve it to do the same for others. Music and art had been my first flickering northern stars to guide me beyond the Western medicine physical world, and while they continue to guide me to this day, now there would be another greater guide. That flickering northern star now has an accompanying sun. Little did I know the long and circuitous, supremely joyful and yet at times deeply painful route that following these guides would take me. As a first step on this new path, I got confirmed as a Catholic at age 17 with the standard bunch of 13 year olds. It was like being a spinster at a debutante ball, but I didn't care. And so I became one of the strangest hybrids known today: a gay Catholic. I went on to found a Gay-Straight Alliance (Now Genders & Sexualities Alliance) at Gilman so that other kids might have a support network, and to produce several benefit concerts entitled You Are Not Alone in college and beyond for the Trevor Project, the national suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth. You can watch highlights from the Broadway star studded concert at St. Paul's Cathedral in Manhattan here or a full concert at Red Hook High School in upstate NY with a post-concert group meeting with guidance counselors.
Reversing the tape back to the humdrum business of high school, I put up with school and sports, at Gilman you had to do a sport after school everyday, and we even won the Varsity soccer championship. But I lived for the few hours in the evening when I could escape to rehearsals. Gilman was lucky enough to be, as my friends in school called it, “a man sandwich”. We were an all boys school with one all girls school on one side (Roland Park Country School) and another all girls school on the other side (Bryn Mawr School). Each school did their own musical or play, and Gilman was the only supplier of boys. It was the first and only time I cared about supply and demand. Freshman year I played Bobby in Crazy for You at Roland Park Country School in the fall and Sky Masterson in Guys & Dolls at Bryn Mawr in the winter. And then for the spring production at Gilman, my own school, I learned the most painful and useful lesson of the theater: you don’t get everything you audition for. I was cut from my own school’s production of Into the Woods. Devastated by the unfaithful lover of school musicals, I turned to the welcoming arms of community theater. I found Oregon Ridge Dinner Theater where they hired me as Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was my first experience of a long running show, every weekend for two months. The company was attached to a school, and gave me my first dance lessons. It just kept getting better.
While I never did do a show at my own school, I managed to stay gainfully employed between the two girls schools and the local community theater circuit. And then I hit the time to apply for college. My parents wanted me to be a doctor who played music on the weekends. My brothers had both attended Yale and played Division 1 sports: one was now a successful businessman post pre-med studies, and the other was a successful doctor, post non-pre med studies. I applied to Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, and because I had heard of the name somewhere, The Juilliard School. I got in everywhere. Again, “everything depends upon a teacher”. The head of music at Princeton at the time, Dr. Richard Tang Yuk, heard me audition, heard my dreams to be a performer, and proceeded to call my parents in for another conference that would change my life. When my parents left his room, they said to me “alright, you can attend Juilliard if you get in. But only Juilliard.”
I went to Juilliard. I auditioned for the voice department in the music school, but knew it was a great school for dancing and acting too. In high school, performing had been the “dessert” at the end of my day, and suddenly Juilliard felt like dessert was served all day. I couldn’t decide if I was elated or about to vomit from too much sugar. The first week, we had a master class where we were instructed to bring a song in English. I brought one of my favorites: “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” from Guys & Dolls. (I had performed the role of Sky Masterson in high school, but my character actor insides always yearned for Nicely, Nicely Johnson's role and fabulous show-stopper song.) I couldn’t understand why everyone looked at me cross-eyed and told me that I needed to bring a “real song in English.” So instead, I found an agent in the city, auditioned for shows out of school, and was cast in my first Off-Broadway reading, Christmas Interruptus.
The same week, I couldn’t find my movement class and so stopped by the dance office to ask where I might find class in the maze of the Juilliard building. The dance administrator looked at me incredulously and said, “who are you?” I told her my name. She responded, “I’m sorry, you are not one of ours. I can’t help you”. Thus my second indication that Juilliard was a “separation of powers” affair: music and dance didn’t touch. It was a strange feeling for a boy who grew up on musical theater. I went to STEPS and started taking ballet again, which eventually led to my dancing in the major motion picture The Producers!
I tried to attend acting classes in the drama department. “No” was the answer. I angled in another direction. At school we were assigned mentors, and I lobbied hard to be assigned Eve Shapiro, a former Juilliard drama department and RADA acting teacher for twenty years now turned opera department director of productions. “Everything depends on a teacher”. Eve and I met every week, sometimes twice a week for all four years. She introduced me to Chekhov, Shakespeare, Wilde, Beckett, Pinter, Williams, and more. Like a soldier wounded on the battlefield brought back to life with drips of water squeezed onto his lips from a rag, Eve and the great plays got me through, and a few years after graduation, into the world tour of Peter Brook’s Une Flûte Enchantée.
But that didn't happen right away. I graduated from Juilliard not knowing my fach (a fancy word for whether I was a baritone or a tenor, although I DID learn that it was more pleasurable to be fached down (to baritone) than fached up (to tenor). I didn't know if I was more of a singer, an actor, a dancer, a teacher, a failure, or what. So I did what every great performer in NYC does and worked in a restaurant, tutored, nannied, and did what ever else was required to make ends meet while I auditioned until my self-esteem was smaller than Trump's attention span. I took a bunch of classes in everything I could get my hands on: Meisner Technique at the Wendy Ward Studio, Acting for TV & Film at Weist Barron, tap, jazz, and theater dance at the Broadway Dance Center, and voice lessons from every teacher I thought could help me. I performed in a couple of projects, and went to the Aspen Music Festival where I had performed the role of George in Ned Rorem's Our Town. In Aspen, I learned that my old alma-mater, Gilman was left in the middle of the summer with no middle school music teacher, and was looking for someone to either take over the position permanently, or fill in long enough for them to find the right match. With reckless abandon, I applied and got the job. It was a trial by fire. I taught middle school general music, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance to a sea of middle school boys in a Halloween assembly, myself and then the boys how to write and perform your own rap (complete with rhythmic looping, poetry, and recording), conducted the middle school choirs, taught voice lessons, and helped music direct that year's musical Annie.
I learned why teachers earn their summers off. I also learned that I loved teaching, and in many ways perhaps learned more from my students than they did from me. For the first time, I realized "everything depends on a teacher" and the great responsibility and honor that gave to me. But I knew my journey was not stopping there. I applied to graduate school, making my audition tape after a long day of teaching in the school basement with my computer, garageband, and a honky-tonk pianjo. I had never had a problem getting an audition with an application CD before. Anywhere I sent that CD that year, I didn't get an audition. More than once the thought "what happened? I guess I'm not good enough and should give up" passed through my mind. It was a dark night of the artistic soul. Within the same few months of being rejected everywhere for even the right to a master's degree audition, I auditioned live for Santa Fe Opera's Apprentice artist program, and I got in. I couldn't get an audition for a master's program, yet I got into one of the most prestigious summer young artist programs where only the one or two best singers at those very same master's programs were accepted. Weird. This may have been my first lesson in "compare, despair". No one's path is like yours. The business does not make sense. Don't compare yourself to others. Put your head down, follow those few important teachers your trust, and work hard. At Santa Fe, I had the summer of my life. I got to sing Apollo next to Paul Groves and Christine Brewer in Gluck's Alceste, and to sing and study with a myriad of brilliant colleagues and teachers who treated me like I deserved to be there. I was not washed up. I could do this. And it was SO FUN.
I learned a mountain about music and life and technique, and by the time I left, had the technical prowess and the belief in myself to start my master's degree at Bard College Conservatory under the direction of Dawn Upshaw and Kayo Iwama. (That spring, I had sung live on a friend's recital who was in their program, and was encouraged to apply, and finally, ever so thankfully, accepted. Yet again, "everything depends on a teacher"). These ladies and the education they created at this school provided the safe cocoon in upstate New York where I could take the overburdened tool-kit I had filled since life after Gilman, and slowly figure out who I was and which tools I, as the artist in charge, wanted to keep in the kit, and which I could throw out and lighten my load.
Spring of my first year master's at Bard, I received an invitation to sing Papageno in a workshop of Peter Brook's Magic Flute adaptation, Une Flûte Enchantée. He wanted to try out his ideas for cuts with a young cast. I assured the person inviting me that I had in fact sung the role (I had not), and promptly gave up my entire life in order to memorize the entire role in 8 days. I arrived to the rehearsal room ready to play. After the workshop, as I sadly bid "adieu" to the French team that had gathered to try out their ideas, they said "oh no. You stay with us. We need another Papageno." I said, "Oh no, I can't. I have school next year." And they said, "school can wait. Come to Paris next August to start rehearsals".
School did wait. I went to the fabled Bouffes du Nord in Paris and experienced a Peter Brook three month rehearsal process with an almost all French and European cast along with a world tour. Every morning we started with several hours of exercises in the Lecoq method led by the brilliant actor and teacher Marcello Magni. More teachers upon which everything depended. I learned what an ensemble could be like, how a human being leaving herself alone and walking across a stage could be devastating, how to improvise in several languages at once, how to feel the energy of the cast and audience and show on a certain day and adapt in the moment, how to trust yourself to do so, how your body could tell the deepest and most subtle of stories, how your intention to say something true must always be louder than your intention to make sound, and so much more. Rehearsals were run in French, and I learned hard and quickly. We toured for several months. I would never be the same.
After a year on tour in Europe, I returned to the USA, finished my master's degree at Bard, and went off into the real world. I wanted so desperately to return to Santa Fe Opera's Young Artist program and recreate the magical summer I had there the year before, but it was not to be. I was not accepted. This would not be the first time that a door not opening was really an angel saying, "You don't want to go there now. Go through this window instead". I was accepted into SongFest, the premiere art song festival and training program in the country. While there, I choreographed a few numbers for the American Songbook concert and taught my "how to write your own rap" lesson that I had developed for the middle schoolers at Gilman, to a visiting middle school of Los Angeles. Little did I know that my small forays into teaching were a hit: two years later I received the phone call from founder and artistic director Rosemary Ritter. Would I come and give a distinguished alumni recital and teach the young artists at SongFest?
How on earth was I going to teach singers only a few years younger than me? What could I say? I dug deep into the treasure trove of information and teachings handed down to me from all my teachers, read every book I could get my hands on (Wesley Balk, through his books became a new teacher upon which everything depended), and filtered them through my life experience: A Bedknobs and Broomsticks loving, gay believer, character actor trapped in a leading man body, who couldn't decide if he should do theater, or opera, or teach, so he did them all and was slowly starting to learn how they all influenced each other in a bigger picture. From all that, I created "Discovery", a laboratory for fellow performers to research and practice complete singing-acting. Through music, play, and movement, and examining the relations of all three to each other, we unlocked each singers dynamic artistic potential. We emphasized truthful story-telling through music, and focused on teaching students self-sufficiency in how to decide what stories they wanted to tell and how. My seemingly to this point all over the map experiences, coalesced into exactly what I needed to create this course and teach these students. Our time was magic. Five years later I was associate artistic director and director of the young artist program. SongFest gave me the opportunity to build my past experiences into a new holistic way of working with the complete human singing-actor, and I have been honing that craft ever since.
I continued to perform all the while. My teaching influenced my performing, and my performing influenced my teaching. I taught privately and at 3rd Street Music School where maestro Julius Rudel had been director. I performed a romping Candide with the London Symphony Orchestra, helped bring Edwin Cahill's Fire Island Opera and Sherrill Milnes' Savannah Voice Festival into existence in their debut seasons, said goodbye to one of New York's greatest operatic institutions, performing in the final season of New York City Opera (since resurrected, may they sing long and loud!), worked on Mozart at Aix-En-Provence's Académie, plunged the depths of song and Milhaud operas with Mark Morris at Tanglewood, and had the honor both to witness and perform as Masetto in one of the greatest achievements of music-theater I have known, what Opera News called "the most enjoyable and thought-provoking Don Giovanni New York has heard in many a year" directed by Edwin Cahill and conducted by Ryan McAdams. These two are an indomitable team of cross-pollinating energy in music, drama, language, and style, not only great leaders, but great teachers. After several productions, I am also lucky enough to call Edwin Cahill my partner, and even outside of the rehearsal room, he inspires me. And along the way, I also earned my Equity Card in Crossing by Matt Aucoin under the direction of Diane Paulus at A.R.T. and BAM.
But while I was slowly becoming more confident in my musical (music) and theatrical knowledge (play) (the more you know, the more you know you don't know), I was also quickly becoming aware of how my knowledge of the body (movement) was sorely lacking. Dance had always enthralled me, but at Juilliard and at Bard I was fortunate enough to work with several extraordinary teachers of the Alexander Technique. (A method developed at the turn of the last century by an actor and orator, F.M. Alexander, who kept losing his voice in performance, and through painstaking observation and practice over several years, taught himself consciously to choose the most efficient way of using his body, and thereby relieved himself of his chronic hoarseness. His method has gone on to change the face of performing artist training, mindfulness, and back pain relief everywhere.) I thought, perhaps I should look more into Alexander Technique training. And then in Israel, I met master-teacher and human Ann Rodiger, and my life changed forever again. "It all depends on a teacher". I joined her Alexander Teacher training course at the Balance Arts Center, and slowly have begun to become aware of deeply ingrained habits in using my body, mind, and being. My singing, acting, movement, teaching, and life have all begun to free themselves from decades of needless but powerful entanglements, and started to hum in synergistic interplay with each other. And I know this is just the beginning.
At around this time, I learned that Brooklyn College had an opening for directing their opera workshop. I applied and to my great surprise, was accepted. With only one male singer in the workshop, and the requirement to choose a piece to direct before I heard auditions, I gave myself a little room to maneuver by announcing a review, Brooklyn Baby!, with songs by all Brooklyn composers and lyricists, and a book by...well me. I guess I would have to write it. And I did. Several months later, the women (and one man) of the Brooklyn College Opera Workshop presented a thrilling production complete with a female president running on the “Make America Great Again, Again” platform, an all female senate, a beauty pageant of all Russian contestants, and a Women’s March Protestor that captures the President’s heart and perhaps party affiliation.
And that monkish tome if you've made it this far, gets us more or less up to present day. Perhaps it shed a little light into how I got where I am today, and why I continue to search, work, and teach in so many different fields. I am passionate at combining music, play, and mindfulness to create a better world: both in my own art and in the art of my students. I truly believe that if we can shift the way we look at the world, we can make art that shines forth our inextricable union with each other and the world: both for ourselves and our audiences. When we realize we are united, what could we not accomplish? Together we can and will make the world a much better place for all of us. So many people already have already led the way. So many great teachers have opened eyes and ears and skin to what is possible. My parents, ever bright, ever steadfast, magnanimous healers perhaps teaching me most of all. May we have the wisdom to listen to all of our great teachers, follow in their footsteps, and keep their traditions alive.