Dallas — This week, the Dallas Opera opens its 2019-2020 season with Mozart’s wildly popular The Magic Flute. In usual fashion, TDO has produced a cast filled with powerhouse voices and exciting new names to the industry. One such all-star is bass Morris Robinson. Known for his varied and unorthodox path that blossomed into an illustrious career, Robinson is no stranger to the role of Sarastro. In advent of the show’s opening, TheaterJones chatted with Robinson to learn more about his experiences with starting his singing career at the age of 30 and working with TDO on such a commanding role.
TheaterJones: You were a cadet and a two-time All-American offensive lineman at The Citadel. How did you find yourself singing after that?
Morris Robinson: What a lot of people don’t know is that I went to a high school of performing arts. My mother made me audition for the chorus because she heard me singing at church and around the house. I was also in the marching band, but I quit so that I could play football. My junior year we did the Mozart Requiem, and I got the bass solo. Then my senior year we did Haydn’s Creation, the Robert Shaw edition with Robert Shaw, and I got the bass solo for that. So, I had a voice, and I knew that I could sing in high school, but after I graduated I went to college on a football scholarship and didn’t pursue music.
Other than singing “The Lord’s Prayer” at weddings and the national anthem at a game or two, I never really addressed singing until the age of 30 when I went back to study at Boston University.
What was that re-introduction like?
I took a job in New England, and the New England Conservatory had a weekend continuing education program. So, I sang the national anthem for them, and they put me in the opera studio. There, Sharon Daniels [associate professor of voice at Boston University] heard me and offered for me to come and audition for BU.
It was really weird. I had a job in corporate America. I turned in my company car, got rid of my corporate credit cards and said, “Hey, I’m outta here.” It was crazy because everyone else in the program had their Master’s degree in music, but I had never studied music in my life besides high school chorus. There was a huge learning curve. Not just with the literature, but also how to read music at a high level, how to pronounce in all these different languages, etc.
Then, I auditioned for the chorus at Boston Lyric Opera, and Stephen Lord [conductor and former music director at Boston Lyric Opera] gave me the role of the king in Aida. It just snowballed from there. It was like drinking water from a fire hydrant, but I tout it as having a raw talent and being given great opportunities.
Did your background in football or corporate America, or anything else that you did prior, help prepare you in any way for your music career?
Yes. There are transferable skills that I acquired in corporate America. There are transferable skills that I acquired on the gridiron and at The Citadel that literally set me up for this career. Organization, personal accountability, flexibility — when you’re lined up and the defense changes, you have to be quick on your feet. It takes a lot of confidence to even walk out on stage and stand on your own two feet. Discipline, which I learned at The Citadel and on the football field. You have to make sacrifices, and they are important if you want to be successful in your career.
Even in sales — you have to believe in your product to convince anyone to buy it. In this industry, you are the product.
What is process for developing Sarastro?
I did my first Sarastro at the age of 36 at the Metropolitan Opera on 10 days of rehearsal. Crashed and burned. It was a lot. At that point, I was just concerned with pronouncing the German correctly. Now, after having sung it over 70 times, it’s not just a musical piece for me. I’m digging into it and really embracing the fatherly aspect of it.
Sarastro is very much like other roles that I’ve played. You have to be stern and authoritative, and then fatherly. It takes finesse, and warmth, and trusting. I’m finding new things to do with it.
How has the rehearsal process been with your cast mates?
It’s ingenious casting. A lot of us have done these roles together, and then there are a lot of principals in the role for the first time. The energies are great; he has the right veterans paired with the right youngsters who are hungry and eager. I’ve enjoyed it.
There appears to be a shifting in the culture of the classical music community when it comes to race and representation. The MET has just commissioned the work of a black composer for the first time. I’m curious to know your perspective on diversity and inclusion in the world of classical music, particularly in opera, especially given your unorthodox pathway into the industry.
As a black man, I came into the business with the mindset of a military guy, a football player, and a business guy. On the field, if you can make the play, the coach doesn’t care if you’re orange — he’s going to play you because you can make the play. I thought that I could do the best I can, and no one would notice anything about me that was difference. Well, that’s not always true. The opera world is a microcosm of the big world, and everything I did had to be really on point in order to even the playing field. I often think I was afforded opportunities because, as a bass, you’re not the romantic lead. So, the aesthetic or visual expectation was different.
I do now see, for whatever reason, see that a lot of things are changing. I hope that this momentum stays, and that this is a result of fair casting and open-mindedness. The Dallas Opera has it figured out because they have the right people in place making the decisions when it comes to casting. If other companies follow suit, we’ll see more diversity on stage, which means more diversity in the audience. We have a long way to go, but the right people in the right places to make decisions is key.