By Gary Murphy
Morris Robinson is considered one of the most interesting and sought-after basses performing today.
With nearly two decades of singing on the international opera stage, Robinson’s operatic path originally began on the football field, first in his native Georgia and then in South Carolina where he sang in the church choir while attending college on a football scholarship. It was only after college while he worked at a Boston corporate job that he applied and was immediately accepted into Boston University's Opera Institute. Within a short time, Robinson landed his first opera role as the King of Egypt in Aida at Boston Lyric Opera.
In retrospect, Robinson’s path to opera seems inevitable. After all, he was the “rare person,” as LA Opera Music Director James Conlon told the Los Angeles Times last year, “born with the great voice where strength predates technique. A lot of people force their voices, they either yell or scream, which decays the quality of the sound. Morris himself is big, and that voice is right there without his having to make it that way, so he can sing with beautiful rounded sounds."
BRAVO: Welcome back to LA Opera! You’re the singular individual who transitioned from the football field to the opera stage. Did your football training better prepare you for the rigors required to sing opera?
Morris Robinson: The connection between the two is more substantial than people might think. In many ways, opera singing is an anaerobic exercise. We have muscle groups that we must train to sustain our vocalism throughout our rigorous schedules. Athletic training requires some of the exact traits as being an opera singer—discipline, hard work and a good work ethic, flexibility, coachability, personal accountability, teamwork, mental toughness … all of these things are very important in both athletics and music.
Voice lessons and vocal coachings are similar to going to the gym and working out on a regular basis. This is called preparation. If you lie around all summer, get out of shape and don’t work out, when training camp rolls around, you will find yourself out of a job. What is worse, you could find yourself in a game situation going head to head with another guy who did work out all summer and stayed in shape. Such an occurrence would account for a very long day of intense physical punishment, all because you weren’t disciplined enough to get yourself physically ready for competition.
In music, if you don’t study, train your technique, memorize your score, you will find yourself in a very similar situation. One of my worst fears is showing up to a gig unprepared. It is my responsibility as a “team member” of a cast to show up ready to go. Unprepared people hinder progress, are a problem to other cast members, and are expendable by the conductor. I parallel the two. Being prepared prevents you from being in a bad situation on the playing field or the rehearsal stage.
Coachability and flexibility are as important to both singers and athletes. In football, you essentially memorize the playbook. However, in a game situation, depending on the opponent’s style, things change that require you to adjust quickly. Your ability to do so is vital to the success of your team. It’s the same with opera. If a conductor has an idea that he likes while in performance, you must have flexibility to adapt immediately, and reproduce that change on the spot. Performances and football games are live events where anything can happen. As a professional, one must have the ability to make necessary adjustments based on the situation presented.
The examples are endless, and the comparisons are incredibly similar. Mental toughness … the ability to experience a bad play yet continue to play hard and never give up … very similar both on the playing field and on stage. Act 1 doesn’t go so well … you have a tickle in your throat … but you must put that behind you and continue with Acts 2, 3 and 4 … that takes mental toughness.
Of course, every athlete can’t become an opera singer … but the tools one needs to be successful in both fields are already in place due to the similarities of the two disciplines.
BRAVO: Sparafucile in LA Opera’s upcoming Rigoletto marks your sixth appearance here, correct? Are there any other LAO roles you have fond memories of?
MR: I remember all my past LA Opera performances—Sarastro in The Magic Flute (debut, 2009); Fasolt in Das Rheingold (2009, 2010); Oroveso in Norma (2016); Osmin in The Abduction from the Seraglio (2017); Zaccaria in Nabucco (2017).
My debut opera was The Magic Flute, but everyone was gearing up for the first of the Ring operas, Das Rheingold, in which I sang the role of Fasolt. It was a great experience, and I really enjoyed the creative process with Achim Freyer.
But most memorable was the off-site rehearsal space and its location just west of La Brea on Pico Blvd which caused my colleagues to complain about the lack of eateries in the neighborhood. On my first day, I walked outside the building on a break and heard some R&B music blaring over a loudspeaker across the street. As I walked towards the music, I discovered Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles! I went back and informed the entire Ring production staff of their good luck. Ultimately, we had lots of wonderful lunches and dinners, which created a phenomenon that we affectionately named the "Waffle Coma.” We loved Roscoe’s and gave them lots of business. The restaurant’s management team even came to the Das Rheingold final dress rehearsal as our guests!
BRAVO: You will conduct the Opera League’s annual Master Class with the LA Opera Young Artists on May 23. In reading about your life, I get the sense you have a strong desire to mentor the next generation of singers. Can you talk a bit about the Master Class experience, what you bring to it and what you hope to instill in the young singers?
MR: When I work with young singers, I have a few goals in mind. First and foremost, I want to help them become better to reach their full potential. Also, I try to instill them with the confidence to go out into the real world and to compete, to make music and be champions of our art.
As young singers, we often hear about the things that we don’t do very well. That is the nature of instruction. We are reminded, and prodded, and chastised. I approach the students in my Master Class as works in progress, as we all are. I create a safe, laid-back environment where we can learn from each other. As singers, we face much pressure which hinders performance. I always tell kids in my classes they should sing bad notes, forget words, make mistakes. It’s a safe environment so let’s make those mistakes and learn how to fix them so as not to carry them over into real situations.
I also want them to realize that, at the end of the day, it’s not really that serious. Of course, we want to be great and do the best we can, but it’s not a matter of life or death. We are all blessed and privileged to do what we do. God has only chosen a select few and blessed us with the ability to reach and touch people through our art, on an intimate level. Take pride in it and enjoy the blessing. Don’t let it drive you crazy! You are a vessel through which the composer, the librettist and the music speak, and that itself is a beautiful thing.
BRAVO: As a bass, you get to perform some of the greatest characters in opera including a personal favorite, the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo, which we’ll hear you sing next season. Are they as much fun as they look to perform?
MR: As a bass, I typically play kings, gods, devils, fathers and priests. They are all fun in their own right. I think that I am a natural leader, partly because I've been blessed with a large presence and physical frame, but also because I'm naturally a "take charge" guy. Because of these traits, the roles I play lend themselves to my natural personality. As a bass, you are always cast in characters of immense authority and presence. Sometimes I'm wise. Sometimes I'm mean. Sometimes I'm aggressive. Sometimes I'm contemplative. Regardless, however, whenever I sing, everyone else listens. They have to and I like that!
BRAVO: There is one role that you only recently brought into your repertoire, and that is Porgy in Porgy & Bess. That premiere was at La Scala in Milan, Italy. Can you tell us why you waited so long to perform Porgy, and was La Scala the reason for the wait?
MR: This came about when the late maestro Nikolaus Harnoncourt approached La Scala and said that he needed a guy with my voice to sing Porgy. I was caught off guard and wanted to decline but instead began a self-prescribed academic journey to study this character both musically and emotionally. After a very thorough and painstaking process, which included research and meticulous analysis of the score, I decided that not only was I going to do this role, I needed to do this role.
One of the watch-outs as an African American opera singer is Porgy and Bess. Historically in our business, those of us who have sung any of the characters in Porgy and Bess have been pigeonholed into those roles or other similar roles in very similar repertoire.
I've said before this is not a reflection of the finite capabilities of the artists but more an illumination of the inabilities of artistic administrators to see the versatility of brown-skinned performers. This is the reason why I waited so long to sing Porgy. To eradicate the potential of being seen only as a guy who sings Porgy, I waited until I literally had 17 solid years of exclusively singing Italian and German rep in top houses. My logic was that my extensive resume would solidify me as a legitimate standard rep artist. If I then decided to branch out, my "bread and butter" track record would substantiate my legitimacy while simultaneously justifying and supporting my choices.
However, what is more interesting is that even at the point when Porgy was offered to me, I never once saw myself as singing the role. It is often cast as a baritone because of the extremely demanding tessitura. Coupled with my doubts vocally was my preconception that I'm not an "underdog" type of guy. Nothing in my repertoire suggests that I have that kind of a personality, and my preconception of Porgy as a character suggested that I needed an emotional skill set, which consisted of a vulnerability that I did not possess personally, vocally or artistically.
In brief, Porgy, per my analysis and subsequent portrayal, is not a weak character. He is not a "kicked puppy.” He is a man's man. A strong man, a well-respected man in his community who is a leader with high moral standards. His only weakness is his very human quality of falling in love with Bess, and then realizing that the only way he can truly have her is by murdering her abusive ex-lover, Crown.
Porgy isn't weak, his legs just don't work. The fact that he makes up his mind to kill Crown is kinda "gangsta." When he says to Bess, "If there weren't no Crown, and it were only just you and Porgy, what then?" ... He made up in his mind that he was going to murder his adversary. That's deep!
Care to follow Morris? His website is morrisrobinson.com. Find him on Twitter and Facebook at @morrisDRobinson, and on Instagram @MDRBass.