New York — When I first heard James Morris, it was clear that this was no ordinary bass-baritone. He was doing smaller parts at the Met--what he calls ''the plant-your-feet-and-make-a-big-sound roles.''
His big break at the Met came when he unexpectedly stepped into the title role of Mozart's ''Don Giovanni'' in January 1975. He then secured his place as one of America's finest low voices in a glamorous new production of Bellini's ''I Puritani.'' He was decidedly the junior member in age and experience in a cast that boasted Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, and Sherrill Milnes. He fit into their illustrious company with startling ease.
Since then, he has been seen as Don Giovanni on the PBS ''Live from the Met'' telecast of the Bellini opera (again with Miss Sutherland), and has added numerous important roles to his Met repertoire, including a superb portrayal of the sinister John Claggart in Britten's ''Billy Budd.'' This season, he was the Colline in the hugely successful Zeffirelli production of Puccini's ''La Boheme'' (again seen on ''Live from the Met'' nationwide).
He was the Guglielmo in the Met's new production of Mozart's ''Cosi fan tutte'' and took over the four villains in the new production of Offenbach's ''Les Contes d'Hoffmann.'' What had been a sensational production took on an added, deeper dimension with Morris as the villains. He could sing the music as well as act it--and with a dark bass-baritone of unstinting richness and suavity.
And for a singer built something like a pro-football fullback, he moved with great ease and dexterity, popping up through trapdoors or slinking around looking elegantly sinister. He is currently on the Met's spring tour in this production, as well as performing the role of Oroveso in Bellini's ''Norma.''
How did Mr. Morris become a singer? As he tells it, he went from using the radio as an accompanist to parts in school operas. When his voice dropped from boy soprano to something lower, he was instantly made one of the three kings in ''Amahl and the Night Visitors.'' Someone who was taping the performance noted that Morris's voice caused the needles on his machine's meters to lunge consistently into the red zone. His parents arranged an audition with the legendary Rosa Ponselle, who came out of retirement to teach him.
He was a star lacrosse player, and he found that the two sides of his interests--sports and voice--were in constant conflict. He asked his father what he should do. His father, an ex-college-sports-star-turned-coach, said the sports would be with him for only a few years, while voice would be his for life.
The Met audition that won him a contract was as successful as it was unexpected. For his temerity in turning down an offer to join the Met studio, he was asked to audition for then-general manager Sir Rudolf Bing. He was offered a contract on the spot. After he'd been doing those plant-your-feet-and-sing roles , he began to think: ''There's more to this than just making a big sound.''
After those first Don Giovannis, the career really took off. He was in demand by conductor Richard Bonynge (Joan Sutherland's husband), not just for the Met ''Puritani'' and ''Don Giovanni,'' but for recordings as well. European houses have been after him for years. This summer he makes his Salzburg Festival debut as Guglielmo in ''Cosi,'' with Riccardo Muti conducting.
That role is not his favorite, and in fact his run in the role at the Met was such an uneasy experience (he was not well treated in the reviews) that he almost canceled his Salzburg dates, but he is not by nature a canceller. Besides , Muti is the hottest operatic ticket for the European market these days, and Morris enjoys working with him.
I asked him if the reviews bothered him. Naturally, they did. ''This year has been a rough one (with the critics). I can't seem to do anything right!'' He was chastised for singing Colline's aria in ''Boheme'' very softly, intimately. ''I had to fight a little for it. They wanted it a little more full-voiced. I don't see it that way. Colline blusters to the point of being a bit of a bore. But he's a very sensitive person under all that. This moment is between him and his coat--it's all inside him.''
As to his roles in the ''Hoffmann,'' he notes that his first role with the Baltimore Opera was Crespel in this opera, with Placido Domingo as Hoffmann. He was flattered when Domingo recalled that fact when Morris joined the Met cast in March.
In general, Morris describes his approach to stage action by saying, ''I like to do as many physical things as possible. That's what makes it interesting for an audience.''
Morris clicks with audiences on an aural as well as a visual (histrionic) level. And he is in demand. La Scala has asked him six different times--including a new production of ''Le Nozze di Figaro''--but he has not been able to fit the dates into his full Met schedule. They recently asked him for Guglielmo, but Morris comments, ''I want [my debut there] to be in a role that shows me off to my best.'' Covent Garden has made two different offers. And he has sung in Florence with Muti.
The next two years will find Morris at the Met, but then in '85-86, nothing-- ''my year to travel, I guess.'' Down the pike vocally are Wotans and Wagner in Baltimore in '84. He goes into this new repertoire with a certain amount of caution, even trepidation (Mr. Bonynge is categorically against it), and if he feels he is jeopardizing the roles he likes to sing today, he will stop.
On records, his newest release is John Gay's ''The Beggar's Opera'' with Bonynge and Miss Sutherland (he readily credits Met associate conductor Joan Dorneman with putting it together for him), and he is to record Lehar duets with Miss Sutherland this summer.
Does he ever have anyone sit in on his performances to help him detect blemishes in his technique? Yes--surprisingly, since not all singers are so wise , though singers cannot hear themselves as well as an objective listener can.
What singers has he learned from? His early idols were Cesare Siepi and Nicola Moscona (an early mentor); he learned much from Ponselle; he learns regularly when he works with Sherrill Milnes.
As to a lasting influence, he mentions the late Norman Treigle: ''To this day , whenever I think of the satanic roles (the various Mefistofeles and other dark villains), I have Norman in my mind. He was the greatest singer-actor of our time.''
The Met tour this spring includes Cleveland through June 5, Boston June 7-12.