The accidental opera star: 'A lot of the purists, they don’t believe my story'

Opera is often called the most irrational art form. Seen through that lens, bass singer Morris Robinson’s unlikely career path makes wonderful sense.

At a young age, from a family and culture that reveres singing, Robinson aspired to be a drummer instead. He ignored college music scholarships and conservatory programs for a free-ride to play football at a military college. Afterward, bypassing all thought of studying music at grad school, he worked for a Fortune 500 company in regional sales of data storage.

At 30, in finally attempting to sing professionally, he tried out for the chorus of “Aida” at the Boston Lyric Opera, the biggest company in New England. A week later, the music director handed him music for a solo role, accompanied by a plea: “Please don’t screw it up.”

“A lot of the purists, they don’t believe my story,” Robinson said. “They don’t believe it until they witness it themselves.”

This weekend Robinson will be onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as the comic foil Osmin in Los Angeles Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Abduction From the Seraglio.”

At a lunch sit-down between rehearsals, without a shred of defensiveness but with a measure of reflective satisfaction, he added: “I think there is something to be said for the unorthodox way I came into the business.”

Now 47 and equipped with 18 years of major roles with A-list companies nationally and internationally, Robinson has forged a life path in opera that seems inevitable in retrospect. After all, he was “the rare person,” L.A. Opera music director James Conlon said, “born with the great voice where strength predates technique. It’s a round, large voice.”

“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 him having to make it that way, so he can sing with beautiful rounded sounds.”

With this level of vocal entitlement, Robinson might seem to be a natural. But throughout his life he seemed to ignore, even actively ward off, singing — though it was always around him.

Raised in a musical clan in Atlanta, Robinson had a dad, mom and three young sisters who all sang. Around 6, he participated in a church choir and then the Atlanta Boy Choir, alternately immersed in religious and secular music.

But singing was at best a backdrop, maybe even an obstacle. “I felt like I could do something special, but I could never figure out what it was,” he said.

“At first, I always was in the choirs, but to me, at heart, I was a drummer. Because if you’re going to be in a church in the South, there has to be rhythm. It was always about beats, beats, beats.”

He entered a performing arts high school. His senior year he made all-city band and all-state chorus.

But all he really cared about?

Football. Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing in the high 200s, he was aware “the cool guys are out there making plays on the football field while you are wearing your uniforms, marching around at halftime. … Who wants to do that?

“I had to redeem myself, my masculinity, I guess.”

To meet academic requirements, he traded band to go out for football but still needed to sing in the chorus. Though offered musical scholarships to universities, he lunged at a full football ride that came from the Citadel, the military college in South Carolina.

He competed well enough against bigger players to be a three-time All American at the guard position, handing out and taking physical beatings. But he wasn’t NFL-size big, and football came to an end.

In college as a freshman he had sung to entertain older classmates, and he cofounded and directed the school gospel choir. His Citadel degree was in English and came with a work ethic and worldly ambitions, but still no ideas about a life in music.

“I didn’t see a viable opportunity, down where I was from, how music might work for me, a future,” Robinson said.

A sales job for 3M landed him in the Washington, D.C., area. A house, company car and expense account followed; most important, so did Denise, a flight attendant he met at a sales conference in Palm Springs. They married and settled in Atlanta.

Singing remained on the edges. As the years went on he performed the Lord’s Prayer at local churches and did a song or two at events, invariably to raised eyebrows and astonished enthusiasm from listeners.

A turning point came when he was to sing at one of his distributors’ wedding in Richmond, Va. “I went to the rehearsal, and the guy conducting was the assistant conductor of the Richmond Symphony, and whatever I sang, he just looked at me and said, ‘Where else do you sing?’ And I was, like, ‘Nowhere.’”

After a lifetime of hearing the chorus of family members and friends imploring him to sing, Denise finally pushed the start button, setting up an audition for a chorale society in D.C.  He relocated to New England for formal training and in 1999 was cast in “Aida.” 

Robinson absorbed two lessons. “It showed they had a lot of faith in my raw talent,” he said. But, more significant, “your voice is up at this level, but your knowledge of music, your ability to read it, your linguistic abilities, they are at garbage.”

He felt that his skills were lacking, and he was determined to remedy that.

“You either learn how to sing or you don’t. He certainly has,” said Conlon, who has cast Robinson so many times over umpteen years, here in Los Angeles and at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago and elsewhere, that he struggles to remember all the roles.

In “Seraglio” Conlon advises listeners to hone in on a big third act aria when Osmin is celebrating.

“He has to sing very, very low, low D, about as low as a bass goes,” he said. “I think that is something people can wait for, listen to Morris get them.”

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Robinson isn’t so much bragging as a bit dazed at thinking how his career has played out.

“All the great bass singers I have studied, idolized, it hit me now I am part of that club,” he said, adding with a sly smile. “And basses, you know, we are the voice of coolness!”

He leaned over, and with a conspiratorial grin, rumbled in his deep voice, “What I have experienced over the years in opera, the higher the voice, the more temperamental the personality.

“But basses, we are just happy to get a dressing room to ourselves.”

In November Robinson achieved a milestone — a career step he had purposely avoided. The role of “Porgy” in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” can be a trap for a young African American bass early in his career.

“This and singing ‘Ol Man River,’ I avoided them both,” he said. “I only decided to finally take on Porgy because at this point, after playing traditional roles in European opera, I had established myself. Plus, it was a lead at La Scala [in Milan] and that mattered to me a great deal, to do it finally and there.”

Robinson follows his role in Los Angeles at the Metropolitan Opera in March in “Aida” and then a series of concert performances in the New York and Boston. The date foremost on his mind comes in early May, when he will receive an honorary doctorate from the Citadel and speak at his alma mater’s commencement.

Next season, L.A. Opera announced Monday, he will be back here playing the meaty role of Zaccaria opposite Placido Domingo in Verdi’s early career highlight, “Nabucco.”

He relishes the way things have played out.

“I still have plenty of ambitions for what and where I sing. But if it stopped tomorrow, all the roles, all the opportunities, all the things I’ve learned … this has become a great professional life.

“Not one I quite planned out, but I have zero complaints.”

 

Los Angeles Opera’s “The Abduction From the Seraglio”

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28, Feb. 4 and Feb. 8; 2:30 p.m. Feb. 12; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16; 2 p.m. Feb. 19  

Tickets: Start at $19 (subject to change)

Information: (213) 972-8001, www.laopera.org

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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An earlier version of this article stated that ticket prices for "The Abduction From the Seraglio" start at $44. They start at $19, though prices may change depending on ticket availability.

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