Photo by Lisa Kohler
Morris Robinson: When I left the Citadel, I was a football player there. At the Citadel, I started a gospel choir. I was one of the founders of the gospel choir and I played for them my first year. Played the piano. And after that I would sing special concerts with the cadet choral. And if they had a big solo piece, they'd ask me to sing it. And afterwards, I that was it. You know, I went into Corporate America. I worked for 3M. And singing at everyone's wedding I could think of, all my teammates, and singing The National Anthem at football and baseball games. And that's pretty much what I did for singing for a number of years until whilst living in Woodridge, Virginia. My wife, Denise, suggested that I-- no, she even suggest it, she actually sneakingly set up me up an audition for a the Choral Arts Society of Washington with Norman Scribner. And I woke up Saturday morning, and I didn't know I had an audition, and I'm just going to do my normal thing, cut the grass and wash the cars, and she says, "You got an audition at 1:00, so you better get ready." And I was like, "What are you talking about?" And so I grabbed an old score of the Mozart Requiem and that's all I had and I walked in and he played and it was actually a full score for some reason. He ended up playing the introduction to the "Tuba Mirum" [ph?]. And I walked in and, <sings>. I did the whole thing. And he stopped and says, "Who are you?" And I'm like, "I'm this guy that lives in Woodbridge," and so he's like, "Well, your voice doesn't fit in my chorus, but you should be in it, because you need to be singing." And that was kind of the point where it became apparent to me that other than Aunt Suzie who sits on the first row at the Baptist Church, someone with credentials that knew what they were talking about actually was mesmerized by the sounds I could make. So that was, to me, the first sign of confirmation that I might be onto something.
Jo Reed: That was opera singer Morris Robinson, Welcome to Art works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works, I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Let's face it, we don't often think about opera singers as being former football players or former corporate salesman, but as we heard that is exactly the background of Morris Robinson. Morris might have taken an untraditional path to opera ; but it's fair to say he has very definitely arrived, singing with the Metropolitan Opera, Boston's Lyric Opera, Opera Pacific, the Philadelphia Opera and on and on. He's become a sought-after singer with his resounding bass and commanding presence, he claims the stage as his own. I had the opportunity to speak with Morris Robinson at the Phoenicia international Festival of the Voice where he sang the role of Il Commendatore in Don Giovanni. I began my conversation with Morris by asking him what drew him to opera.
Morris Robinson: I don't know if I've figured it out yet. But <laughs> I started studying voice at the age of 30. I was in Corporate America and auditioned for a weekend program up in New England at the New England Conservatory of Music, singing the National Anthem. And when I sang that, the lady there that was playing for me, suggested I join the opera studio because of my voice. And in high school, I'd done the Mozart "Requiem," I'd done the Hayden's "Creation." But you know, no real opera, that was all oratorial stuff. At the age of 30, I got into the program on the weekend. And that led to me being in a musical in Salem, Mass. Called "Satanella," where I play the role of the devil. And Sharon Daniels happened to be at that production from Boston University because she had a private student that was in that production with me, and she walked up to me afterwards and said, "You really are onto something here, and I don't hear voices like yours all the time. You should consider, you know, doing opera for a living." And I was like, "Well, you know, I don't have a degree in music, I've never done this before." She says, "Look, I run one of the most prestigious organizations in the opera world, and we only take 12 singers, and most of them have their master's degree. But I think we can make an exception for you. If you commit to us, and you're sharp and you..." So anyway, I auditioned for her program in the spring, and she let me on full scholarship with a stipend, and that was kind of it. I haven't looked back since.
Jo Reed: What a story!
Morris Robinson: Had to quit my job. Had to turn in the company car. Had to take a part-time job at Best Buy on the weekends. But it worked out. There are sacrifices you make to do something that you enjoy to do.
Jo Reed: Absolutely.
Morris Robinson: And I think the rare gem is being able to find the opportunity to make a living at something you enjoy doing. And if you can do that, it by far outweighs all of the other accoutrement that go with working in Corporate America, and the stability of that type of living. Because ... at the end of the day, you're happier, you know.
Jo Reed: So did you know how to read music? Is that something that you're learning now? Tell me how that works.
Morris Robinson: I read music when I was in the high school chorus. And I was also in the band. So I could read music at a moderate high school level. I had a very, very good ear. I've always been blessed with an ear for music. And I just, for some reason, God had blessed me with the ability to just get certain things. One of them is playing the drums, which I never took a lesson at and played all my life. And the other thing is being able to pick up on musical styles and kind of understand the intention of why a composer made a chord progression this way, and why it flows this way, and why he wrote it this way, and why he put this word on this note as opposed to this. You know, it's things that you study in university and conservatory. Sometimes you're blessed with an innate ability to be musical and to be artistic and to understand the flow of a musical line. And I think I'm blessed with that ear. The rest of the academia I had to put to use and use my brain for was learning the languages and learning the pronunciation and that type of thing. But the other stuff I actually came in here with a stacked deck, because I was blessed with some natural abilities. Now, I don't want people to get confused and think I didn't have to work hard. In fact, one of the logical reasons for leaving Corporate America was I was working so hard with those guys, I figured if I put that much time and effort into myself, and cultivated what this is I had naturally, I could eventually make something out of that. So I worked incredibly hard to catch up with where the voice suggested that I was professionally. You know, studying with kids that are already had their master's degree, and had already been through six to eight years of training. And I walk in, one day I'm a sales rep, the next day I'm trying to be an opera singer. So I had to catch up with those guys. And you know, in this community, it's really funny. It's really wonderful. You walk in. People know that you're completely green, but they see that you have talent, but they also see that you have drive and ambition and discipline and hunger and you want to study and you want to get better. And they really open their arms and help you along. I had students that were my classmates that were-- you know, would stay up extra nights with me and help me learn things and help me learn phrases and things. You know, just a very welcoming atmosphere.
Jo Reed: Well, we're here in Phoenicia, New York at "Festival of the Voice." And tomorrow night you'll be singing in "Don Giovanni." And the rehearsal time was what two minutes? <laughter>
Morris Robinson: Well, yesterday we went though the whole piece. Today, I walked out for about two minutes. It's a concert version, so it's moderately staged. But this is also the second operatic role I did. Boston Lyric Opera very much like the Metropolitan Opera, took me under their wing and gave me all of these smaller supporting roles while I was studying at BU. And the Commendatore was one of those roles. So and it's funny, when I got that role, Bill Womkin and Stephen Lord and Steven Steiner [ph?] all said, "You better learn this well, because you're going to be singing this for the rest of your life." And there has not been one year in my operatic year that I have not sung at least one Commendatore. Hopefully, I can sing it until I'm old and wobbly and... <laughs>
Jo Reed: Well, you certainly take over the stage. It might be a concert version of the opera, but I was at the rehearsal yesterday, and you hold that stage.
Morris Robinson: Well, you know, I'm really the highest ranking official in the opera. In the first scene, obviously, I walk out to break up Giovanni taking advantage of my daughter, but you know, I'm a very dignified and high-ranking official. And the last scene, it's 50/50. The goods that you bring to the table and what Mozart wrote. Mozart takes care of a lot of it for you, because of the way he wrote the music. But if you can bring some goods to the table and bring a very commanding voice and commanding colors. I always say this jokingly, but it is kind of the truth, by the end of the opera, there are three bases on stage, and the Commendatore has to be the best one in that scene. You have to have the most power, the most volume, the darkest and most intimidating color. And you have to be in command of that scene lest you blow it. So my job is to walk out and compete with two basses that have been singing the whole opera. And I have to go out fresh and try to get them. So there's a little competitive nature in that role. <laughs>
Up and hot â from Don Giovanni
Jo Reed: Now you grew up singing in a church, didn't you?
Morris Robinson: Actually, I grew up playing the drums in the church. I did sing. My first solo was at the age of six, singing, "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus" with the Pastor's Choir, a little kiddie choir we had at Israel Baptist Church in Atlanta. But my family was full of singers. You know, my mom started the gospel choir and was a soprano in the gospel choir. And my dad was in the same gospel choir and he's a Baptist minister, so, you know, they all sing. My sisters all sing, and I was kind of the guy that had the musical ear to play instruments. I could sing, and I just didn't. My mom actually made me start singing when I got to the High School of the Performing Arts. I auditioned for the band, and she made me audition for the chorus. And I got in. So she was kind of foresighted with that.
Jo Reed: Where did you grow up?
Morris Robinson: Atlanta, Georgia.
Jo Reed: And they have a School of Performing Arts there?
Morris Robinson: Yeah, it was the Northside School of Performing Arts. Billy Densmore ran that. And it was a magnet program. You had to audition to get in. And I was a unique case, because I'd already gotten accepted into the band. You were supposed to do two period of one discipline. Well, he allowed me to split time, because he loved my voice, he let me do one period of band, and one period of voice. And then football season rolls around and I'm in the marching band, and I realize that I don't want to be in the marching band. So I go to the band director in the spring and said, "Look, I'll play the spring concert, but I'm going to football practice." And he's like, "What are you doing? You just made All City." I said, "Nah, I'm going to play football." So I ended up going to the chorus full time, which allowed me to stay in the program, and it's funny the irony is I sang in order to play football. So.
Jo Reed: Well, then you ended up at the Citadel. Does the Citadel have a music department?
Morris Robinson: No. No, the Citadel was the antithesis of an artistic expression if you ask me. <laughs> It is a military academy, very regimented, very disciplined, but at the same time, you're dealing with a level of guys that have obtained a certain amount of academic achievement and are probably more intellectual. Which means they're more open-minded. And even on the football field, in the locker room I experienced bewilderment and a liking for the fact that I was able to sing. And I was in the high school chorus and sang things in different languages, in Latin at least, and they were mesmerized by that. They actually thought it was a pretty cool thing. Whereas some people would have thought it was a little odd and different. The interworkings you could see going through people's minds when you do something. They're like, "Well, that's actually pretty interesting." So it was an environment that allowed you to be yourself, because people, I think, the more exposed people are, and the more intellectual they are, the more likely they are to be accepting of varying things. And so that's what happened to me there. So it was a pretty cool experience with that.
Jo Reed: Do you remember your first full-length, fully-staged opera?
Morris Robinson: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: What was it?
Morris Robinson: It was "Aida." And I was singing the king. And it was at Boston Lyric Opera. And it was about a month-and-a-half after I started studying. I mean, the first month was like a whirlwind. I was singing "Bluebeard's Castle" and Bluebeard in English in a semi-staged piano production at the school, and auditioned for the chorus at Boston Lyric Opera. And the Director of Music wanted to hear me, because they'd been talking about me, and he gave me some music and said, "I want you to learn this and sing it for me next week." And I auditioned for them, it was the music for the king in "Aida," and said, "We'll be back in touch with you." They called back to the school when I got up there and says, "We know you don't know what you're doing, but you're singing the king in "Aida" with the Boston Lyric Opera. Don't mess up." <laughs> So, I was used to pressure, and I mean, football, and being in sales, and you know, I'm used to that type of thing. It's just a matter of preparing myself to make sure that I can do the best that I can. And I remember opening night. Standing on stage, holding the onyx, and the curtain went up for the triumphal-- you know, the first scene of the king walking in. And I walked out there and this house is full. I think the Shubert Theater held like 2,300 people, and the stage was full of the chorus, and everything is happening, and the conductor is down there, and they got on tuxedos now. This isn't rehearsal. And I thought for about a brief second, "What in the world am I doing here?" I really was just like, it went through my mind, like, "I can't believe I'm here." And then I took a deep breath, and I started singing, and ... that was it. I mean, that's what I do now. That's my thing, you know?
Jo Reed: Were you hooked?
Morris Robinson: I was! I was hooked, because you know, anything that you do, and you feel a sense of accomplishment because you worked hard for it. A lot of people think of this business that Morris Robinson is some freak of nature, who has this great bass voice, who everything comes easy for him. They have no idea how hard I have to work to be at the level of my colleagues when I'm on stages. Even at the Boston Lyric Opera, which is one of the premier houses in America and New England. And you know, I have to work really hard to get to a level of artistic acceptance at that level. Now, you know, when you're singing at the Metropolitan Opera in San Francisco and Houston, and Chicago and Florida Grand, and you know Philadelphia, you know, the bar is always raised, and it's always excruciatingly high. And you have to make yourself be at that level. So it takes lots of preparation. I just got done doing my first "Tosca" at Ravinia, with Michel James Conlin in Chicago Symphony Orchestra in that cast. Patricia Racette, BrBryn Terfel, Salvatore Licitra, and Morris Robinson. How does that even go together? You know? But for the very small role of Angelotti, I remember spending four hours with a coach to learn that role and make sure the Italian was impeccable.
Jo Reed: And that's what I was going to say to you, because the thing that would be most difficult for me coming at this, it's not just the music, it's the languages. You can't just learn it by rote! Because you have to express emotion.
Morris Robinson: Yeah, there's no shortcuts. You have to know what you're singing. You have to know the scene, you have to know what the people around you are saying. And I think a lot of the times, one of the natural abilities that God has blessed me with is to pick up on the score, and musically, the great composers, like Puccini for instance, or Mozart, they write in the score exactly what you're feeling. And if you just go with the emotion of the music, you got about 65 percent of it figured out. The rest of it comes with the nuances of expression and the words and utilizing them correctly, and putting the inflection on the right syllables, and those types of things. That's the next level if you will. But that was the academic part. And I consider myself a relatively bright guy. I mean, I played football, but I played offensive line, so you got to be smart to play offensive line. But yeah, that was the challenging part. You know? Open your mouth and making sounds, that's challenging for a lot of people, too. That part worked for me. The other part, I still work on it every day. I mean, I'm Morris Robinson, I'm a professional. I sing a lot of places, and people don't understand that I fly back to New York all the time just to work with the highest level coaches I can find to make sure that I'm singing at the highest level available to me.
Jo Reed: You put out a CD, called "Going Home." And it's exquisite interpretations of old spirituals. Tell us how this developed.
Morris Robinson: Well, how it developed was Costa Pilavachi [ph?], who was at DECCA at the time, I guess he kept hearing about me when I was in New York, I was doing a lot of 9/11 events. I was singing at Yankee Stadium for the Yankee's games. I was doing things all around town. And I think there were a couple of articles in the New York Times, and stuff like that. USA Today and he liked me. And we sat down one day, and we talked about, you know, "If given the opportunity, what would you do to record?" And I said, "You know, I always thought if I got an opportunity to record, the first thing I'd like to do is do something spiritual. But I don't want to be in a concert hall with a piano. I want to do it a little bit differently. I want to make sure that I paid respect and gave my respects to God who had given me this talent. So it was kind of out of left field. I mean, it doesn't realy go in line with what I do for a living. IN fact, I was not a gospel singer at all. But if I'm going to do something, the first thing I'm going to do-- my mother always taught me, you know, "Before you eat, the first thing you do is pray. Before you go to bed, you pray. Before you do anything, you make sure that you thank God for what he's given you. So if this is going to be my debut, I wanted to make sure I did that."
Jo Reed: Do you differentiate between Gospel and Spirituals?
Morris Robinson: I do. Well spirituals historically a clandestine, covert, secretive language that was utilized by the slaves as kind of clues and passwords and rights of passage, if you will, from plantation to plantation, from field to field, from house to field. There were hidden lyrics inside these beautifully written traditional tunes that let people know that the "massah" was around the corner, and it helped assist things like the underground railroad and all kinds of things. And then it morphed into an art form. Gospel is like a whole different thing. I think Gospel spun out of that. But I think now, more so than ever, Gospel has so many jazz and contemporary and R&B type riffs to it. But it's joyful noise. It's praise. You know, it's good news. And you know, I'm very much a fan of gospel music. I enjoy the spirituals, and I think it's beautifully written stuff, and every time I do a concert, I make sure that, because I spend so much time singing Italian and German composer stuff, I want to make sure I give something back to, not just American, but African-American composers as well.
Jo Reed: How did you choose the spirituals that you included on your CD? "Going Home," which we should say.
Morris Robinson: Well, it was collaborative. I mean, Robert Sadin was the producer. And you know, he did Kathleen Battle's, a few of her albums. He did-- he also worked with the Clark Sisters, who are legendary gospel singers. So, you know, I brought some things to the table; he brought some things to the table. Cyrus Chestnut, Joe Joubert, they were all involved. And you know, we just tried to figure out what would work and what would be different. I think it worked. I enjoyed that project. It was stressful. My son had just been born right when I was recording it, so I wasn't getting much sleep at night. <laughs> But it was great. I went to London and recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and we have four orchestral tracks and the rest of it was kind of creating as we go with some great musicians, and great interpretations and collaborative efforts.
Jo Reed: I love your rendition of "Wade in the Water."
WADE in the Water up and hot
Morris Robinson: You know, my god kids, they love that "Wade in the Water." I mean, it's a unique arrangement, I love it. I sign the track and then all the magic took place, and I was at home sleeping. I woke up the next morning and I got my email. And I was like, "How do you add all those bongos in it? And what's this?" You know, if you listen to it, there's like brush rubbing, and it sounds like someone running through the woods, and you got the African drums playing, and so it kind of sets a scene. But my son's kindergarten teacher found out that his dad was an opera singer, 'cause I don't talk about these things, and she bought my album. So during quiet time, or reading time, she played "Wade in the Water." And my son was sitting there and he's like doing his little writing, and all of a sudden he looked up and said, "Hey! That's my dad!" <laughs> And he came home. He was all excited about it. But I think my favorite song-- well, for different reasons-- the first one, "Walk With Me, Lord," is like it kind of sets the tone, you know, that this is not going to be your normal opera singer singing gospel music with an Italian technique. You know, it starts off:
<sings "Walk With Me, Lord" live, transitions to recorded version>
Morris Robinson: This one kind of started, it was me just grabbed the mike and started singing it. And the bass player just started, <snaps> "boom-boom-dum-dum-dum." And then Cyrus and Joe picked up, and before you knew it, Rob was like, "Hit record! Hit record!" <laughs> "Record it, record it!" So that's organically how some of those things happened. And that was one of those situations it was like he started playing a riff, I started singing. Cyrus ran and jumped on the piano. Joe jumped on the organ. And before you know it, he said, "Roll the tape! Roll the tape!" And you know, we got it. And then we went back and redid it. Because now we had it figured out. And yeah, it was great. So I loved that. Yeah.
Jo Reed: What's the difference for you between performing and doing studio work?
Morris Robinson: Well, my studio work is limited. I did studio work in high school, 'cause we laid all the tracks for our production, our traveling production. It's two different worlds. I mean, there's nothing like live performance. You know, in the studio you can sing and cough in the middle of a track and go back and do it again. If you don't like it, you can do it again. When you're on stage, you get one shot. And if it's not a great night for you, if your voice isn't great, if you're in Phoenicia, New York, in the woods, in the mountains with mosquitoes and allergens all in the air--and I'm very allergic to a lot of things--don't matter. You got to go. It's time to go right now. It's like playing football. I mean, you know, you wake up one morning and you got a crook in your neck. Well, that's game day, suck it up, you got to go. 'Cause you got 22 other guys starting that are depending on you to do your job. So that's what I love about it. I love-- don't get me wrong. I love the studio stuff. And when I'm at home with my keyboard and Cakewalk and Pro Tools, I can make you think I'm an accomplished pianist. But when you walk out on stage, and the lights are in your face, and the conductor's in the pit, and you can't tell him, "Hold on one second, Maestro, I need to swallow." No, it's time to go. You know, and that's, that's the competitive side. That's the, "It's game time. It's time to do it" side. But also, that's also where preparation begets opportunity. I've done this a million times. I know how to prepare myself. I know I shouldn't have eaten that hotdog two hours before the show, but I got to suck it up now and burp silently. You know? All those things happen. And you know, and you try to develop a routine where that isn't an issue. But you know, live performance is live performance. If you forget a word, "Uh-oh, you forgot a word." You just roll with it. And so far I've been able to be pretty successful at this. So. <laughs>
Jo Reed: You sure have. Thank you...
Morris Robinson: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was singer Morris Robinson, talking about his career in opera and his recent cd of spirituals, Going Home.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from Don Giovanni, sung by Morris Robinson, Kerry Henderson, and Louis Oaty, used courtesy of the Phoenica International Festival of the Voice.
Excerpts from "Wade in the Water," Walk with Me and Going Home sung by Morris Robinson, from the cd Going Home, used courtesy of Universal Music Group.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U---just click on the itunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, Native American filmmaker, Billy Luther
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Going Home - Up and hot
Meet Morris Robinson, who was an All-American at The Citadel, started studying voice at the age of 30, and sings at the great opera houses throughout the country. [27:03]