From Football To Opera: Singer Morris Robinson Takes Center Stage

Feb 3, 2016
Originally published on February 3, 2016 4:11 pm

Morris Robinson has the kind of bass voice that reverberates so strongly, you feel it in your concert seat. Listening to it, you assume he's been singing all of his life. And he has — but not opera.

Robinson grew up in Atlanta, the son of a Baptist minister and a mother who spent a lot of time making sure her children played musical instruments and did well in school. His earliest memory of singing was being "in the kiddie choir," standing on a chair in church and singing the hymn "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus." He got a lot of applause. "Then I realized I wanted to play the drums, which is a lot more exciting than singing. So I ended up being the church drummer."

For a long time as a youth, Morris Robinson says, "singing was just something to do. Nobody thought of it as a viable profession."

Aiming For One Goal ...

What he really wanted to do was play football. And he did, but soon he grew too big to play in his division in the youth leagues, so reluctantly, he turned to music.

He sang in the Atlanta Boys' Choir and in the chorus at his performing arts high school, where he also played football.

"When you're a big black guy down south in Georgia," he grins, "you play ball. It's like a rite of passage."

Chorus was fun, but football was cool. And cool counts a lot in high school.

His prowess on the field got him to the Citadel, the military college in Charleston, S.C., where he played ball and soloed in the schools' venerated Christmas concert with an "O Holy Night" people still remember. An offensive lineman, Robinson was voted All-American three times — but it wasn't enough to get him a much hoped-for spot with the NFL.

He was, ironically, too small. "At 6 feet 2 1/2 inches, 290 pounds, I'd be blocking someone 6 feet 6 inches, 300 pounds," he says. "Would somebody pay me millions of dollars to protect their quarterback? Probably not."

... Working On Another

After graduation, he got a job in corporate sales and moved around the country as he got better offers and promotions. Along the way, he married Denise Wright, an attractive flight attendant he met en route to a sales conference. Their son Miles is 10 years old. Sometimes Robinson sang for his former teammates when they got married. He missed music and began to wonder if he might be able to do something more than weddings.

While working in Boston, he applied to Boston University's Opera Institute and was accepted with a full scholarship and stipend. It was a chance to become an opera professional, but that meant giving up a lucrative job: "company car, expense account, office at home, 401(k) — quit."

Denise encouraged him. They both saw it as an investment in Robinson's career. He promised to give it his all for two years to try to make it work. "If it doesn't," he promised, "I'll go back to work."

He didn't have to. Robinson was cast regularly from the start. His first role was with the Boston Lyric Opera as the king in Aida. One role led to another, work was steady — so steady, "I had to cut back on my part-time work at Best Buy to put some change in my pocket, I was singing so much."

At the same time, he was learning a lot: "So much is coming at me: languages, style, stage combat, stage position, vocal production. ... It was like drinking out of a fire hydrant!" But the doggedness and discipline he'd learned on the football field stood Robinson in good stead.

He's sung with opera companies from St. Louis to Sydney, from Atlanta to Aix-en-Provence. In 2013, he starred as Joe in the Houston Grand Opera's production of Show Boat; his "Ol' Man River" brought down the house.

'It Is Changing' — Somewhat

As an African-American opera singer, Robinson is still something of a rarity, but less rare than he once was. Racial barriers are not as high as they were when Marian Anderson and William Warfield sang onstage.

"I will say it is changing," he says carefully. "Exposure has reached out and brought in more African-American singers represented on stage, in concert halls and opera houses." But change is relative. "There are still very few of us," he admits. And diversifying opera's audience is still challenging.

Robinson says he's lucky: He's sung most of the roles he's wanted in many of the places he's wanted to sing them. But over the years, he has steadfastly refused to consider one role: the title role of Porgy in Porgy and Bess.

Robinson thought he knew what people were thinking when they asked: "I'm a big, black opera singer; I should be singing Porgy and Bess." And he was having none of it: "I didn't want to be typecast that early in my career."

Now, firmly established after 17 years of singing mostly Italian and German works, Robinson is ready. This fall, he'll be singing Porgy at Milan's iconic opera house, La Scala.

And seats will rumble.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Football and opera, two words not usually connected, but that is Morris Robinson's career transition. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team met Robinson recently when he performed in here Los Angeles. And he told her how he went from the football field to the opera stage.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Morris Robinson grew up in a musical family in Atlanta. His dad was a Baptist minister, and they sang gospel and popular tunes at home. If you ask him if he knew opera as a child, he'd say no. But then he mentions this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Kill the wabbit. Kill the wabbit. Kill the wabbit.

MORRIS ROBINSON: You know, when you're listening to Wagner and you hear that dum ba da da dum da (ph), you're like, wait a minute. That's kill the wabbit, you know (laughter).

BATES: As a child, Robinson liked singing. He sang in the Atlanta Boys' Choir at his church and in his high school chorus, but he loved playing football.

ROBINSON: You know, you're a big black guy down south in Georgia, you play ball. That's like your rite of passage.

BATES: This big black guy went to the Citadel military college on a football scholarship and was a three-time All-American. But he wasn't big enough to go pro. So after graduation, he went into corporate sales. While working in Boston, still missing music, he was accepted into Boston University's prestigious Opera Institute. He was older than most of his classmates.

ROBINSON: So start at 30, I realized that the stakes were high because I risked a lot and gave up a lot to pursue this, so I took it very seriously.

BATES: And there was a lot to take in.

ROBINSON: It's like drinking water out of a fire hydrant. There's so much coming at me - languages, style, stage combat, stage position, reading music at a high level, vocal production. All these things that I never knew, I'm just, like, soaking it all in.

BATES: His diligence paid off. Robinson has sung with opera companies in New York, San Francisco and Sydney to name just a few. He starred in the Houston Grand Opera's production of "Show Boat." Even while flourishing in opera, he never lost his love of gospel.

ROBINSON: (Singing) Going home, going home, Lord, I'm going home.

BATES: Another type of sacred work brought him to Los Angeles recently.

ROBINSON: One of my favorite pieces of music is the one I'm doing here. The "Verdi" requiem is, like, my favorite oratorio piece. It's dramatic. It's everything you want to hear when you go hear grand opera.

BATES: And Grant Gershon, the LA Master Chorale's artistic director, believes Robinson was the right choice.

GRANT GERSHON: There's simply nobody I can think of who is more ideal to sing the incredible bass solos in the "Verdi" requiem than Morris Robinson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

GERSHON: That's the combination of the size of the voice. I mean, this is a huge instrument. But it's also the artistry that he brings to it and the personality.

BATES: Robinson hopes his personality and voice will bring a more diverse audience to opera. He says he saw a hopeful sign of that a few months ago.

ROBINSON: I met a guy up in New York. There was a young brother, tatted up, hat on backwards, wife beater, black car, tinted windows, chrome rims.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

ROBINSON: And I'm walking across the street because I thought I heard something. So I walk right to his window, and I was like, is that the "Lacrimosa" requiem? And he couldn't hear me. He says, what you say, dog? And I was like, "Lacrimosa," Mozart requiem. He said, oh, yeah. I was like, all right.

BATES: Morris Robinson says he's more than all right with the roles he's sung and the places he's sung them. The one role he has steadfastly refused during his 17-year career and that many think he's perfect for was Porgy in Gershwin's "Porgy And Bess."

ROBINSON: I'm a big, black opera singer. I'm supposed to be singing "Porgy And Bess." I didn't want to be typecast into that early in my career.

BATES: Now with his career firmly established, Robinson finally has agreed to sing Porgy this fall in Milan at La Scala. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.