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From Football To Opera: Singer Morris Robinson Takes Center Stage

Morris Robinson in the Los Angeles Opera's 2009 production of <em>The Magic Flute.</em>
Los Angeles Opera
Morris Robinson in the Los Angeles Opera's 2009 production of The Magic Flute.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.