The soprano Erin Morley is no stranger to the Metropolitan Opera, where she has been a fixture for over a decade. But until now she has never been the face of the company.
That changed in recent weeks, as her likeness — blown up to the size of buses and billboards — has promoted her star turn in “Eurydice,” which had its Met premiere on Tuesday.
“I feel like I’ll never get used to seeing my face on a billboard,” Morley, 41, said in an interview on Wednesday morning. “It’s definitely been strange to walk by it every day on my way to rehearsal.”
Morley sings the title role in the opera, composed by Matthew Aucoin and with a libretto by Sarah Ruhl based on her 2003 play. Eurydice is the heart of this retelling of the classic myth, which premiered at Los Angeles Opera in early 2020. In Ruhl’s conception, she is reunited with her dead father in the underworld and feels ambivalent (at best) about her relationship with history’s greatest musician; she contends with those uncertain feelings in the work’s most substantial aria, “This is what it is to love an artist.”
Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, referred to that aria during a speech at the party that followed the premiere. Introducing the cast with generous superlatives, he said: “She’s singing ‘what it means to love an artist.’ But we are learning what it means to love her, the incomparable Erin Morley.”
Since her 2008 Met debut, in the anonymous role of a madrigalist in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” Morley has become a scene stealer — comical and absolutely precise in the musical stratosphere as Olympia in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”; alluring even while singing offstage as the Forest Bird in Wagner’s “Siegfried”; and a full-bodied lyrical force holding her own alongside Renée Fleming and Elina Garanca as Sophie in Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier.” For the Met’s livestreamed At-Home Gala early in the pandemic, she memorably accompanied herself on piano in the bel canto showpiece “Chacun le sait,” from Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment.”
In an interview, Gelb said that the Met has “a big stake” in her future. Within the next four seasons, she will sing eight different roles, including Pamina in a new staging of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” and a leading part in a Baroque pastiche the company is developing.
But first “Eurydice,” which continues at the Met through Dec. 16 and will be broadcast in cinemas on Dec. 4. Still riding the high of opening night, she spoke about preparing for the role, weathering the pandemic and returning to the Met. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What has your relationship with contemporary opera been?
I did a lot of new music when I was in college. I had a lot of composer friends and loved learning their stuff. Since then I’ve done contemporary music but not premieres, and certainly not an opera premiere. A lot of my colleagues have done more new opera than I have. I’ve seen their experience, and how much it fuels them, and I didn’t really get it until now. This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever been a part of.
How did the pressure of something new differ from the standard repertory?
Both situations have a certain amount of gravity to them. But with this, I felt a sort of responsibility: I’m the first to bring this to the Met, and I’m offering a sort of baseline for people to look at for the years to come.
Obviously, there are huge challenges in learning a new piece because there’s no reference for it, and it takes exponentially more time. The first time I talked with Matt was two and a half years ago. He writes very mathematical rhythms. I’ve never had my musicianship so thoroughly questioned; there were days when I felt like I spent 20 minutes on two measures. Part of that is that he writes with the intent of achieving some sort of natural speech rhythms. It comes out sounding quite nice, but it’s time-consuming.
You’ve been singing with the Met for a while, but how does it feel to be on posters and playbills?
I started with the Met in their young artist program. Coming out of that, it’s a hard bridge to fully fledged professional, and the Met offered me a lot of those bridges. It’s kind of beautiful and satisfying to take your audience on a journey with you, and know that the people who saw me in “Eurydice” also saw me in “Manon Lescaut.”
Seeing the billboards, I feel a certain responsibility to carry the show, to bring people into the theater and celebrate this moment that the Met is having. Sometimes that’s a lot to take on. But it really fueled me put that much more energy into it.
A real highlight of the Met’s At-Home Gala was you accompanying yourself.
It was satisfying and beautiful to be able to revisit my identity as a pianist. I was an accompanist for quite a while, and I didn’t realized how much I’d missed that. It was, however, dissatisfying to not be collaborating with anyone. It was extremely exciting to watch and be a part of that experience, but it was so sad to just be alone.
We were all so nervous that day. My husband took our kids to the park when I went on, because there was nowhere to go. They came back after I finished, and my daughter said, “Mom, you missed a note.” Which I had.
But you seemed so carefree, not nervous at all. And you landed that — what is the high note in “Chacun le sait”?
It’s a high F at the end. This is why I’m a performer. I respond to adrenaline pretty well. I was really high on nerves that day. And I had missed that. I missed adrenaline so much during the pandemic that I went skydiving. I remember feeling after it was over: It was the exact same experience as having a performance onstage at the Met.
What was it like returning, finally, to the Met?
About a year ago I did a photo shoot in the Met for Town & Country with Angel Blue, Isabel Leonard and Peter. And it was totally eerie to be in the building with all the lights off and nobody there. It was just so profoundly depressing.
Then coming into the house for my first “Eurydice” rehearsal — it was almost too much for my heart to hold. It was a beautiful reunion, but it was also tinged with a little sadness because we’ve all been through so much. Everybody seems changed; I give 10 percent, 20 percent more to my projects now because I just don’t know if I’m ever going to have it again. It was so hard to lose it during the pandemic, that I savor everything so much more now.