As a stalwart of Los Angeles Opera, bass Morris Robinson has been in more than a dozen productions since making his 2009 debut with the company as Sarastro in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Among those roles have been Fasolt in Das Rheingold (2009–2010), Parsi Rustomji in Satyagraha (2018), and Landgraf Hermann in Tannhäuser (2021). He ended the 2021–2022 season as Ramfis in Aida and appears in LA Opera’s final production of this season, Otello, which runs May 13 – June 4 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in the role of Lodovico.
It wasn’t preordained, however, that the Atlanta, Georgia-born bass would have a career in opera. Originally wanting to be a drummer, he sang and played percussion in a church choir growing up. And yes, he also sang in the Atlanta Boy Choir and in the chorus at his performing arts high school, where he also played football.
Standing more than 6 feet tall and tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds, Robinson won a scholarship to The Citadel, where he was an offensive lineman. But after graduating with a degree in English, the NFL did not come calling: Robinson was deemed too small. The Super Bowl’s loss proved to be the opera world’s gain — but only following a stint as a corporate salesman for a Fortune 500 company.
It was after singing at various friends’ weddings, and being encouraged by his wife, Denise Wright, that Robinson applied to Boston University’s Opera Institute and was accepted on a full scholarship. The rest, as they say, is operatic history, as the bass, now 54, has notched a variety of roles at opera houses around the world, including performing with San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and La Scala in Milan.
A graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program, Robinson made his Met debut as the Second Prisoner in Fidelio (2002) and has since been a regular presence at the storied house, with other roles including Ferrando in Il Trovatore and Hylas in Les Troyens. Of his 2021 turn in Julie Taymor’s The Magic Flute, then-New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote, “The powerful bass Morris Robinson made an imposing yet trustworthy Sarastro, the spiritual leader of the temple.”
Also a prolific concert singer, Robinson recently made his debut with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, under Music Director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, in performances of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. (He can also be heard on the Grammy Award-winning recording of the same symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel.) He has also appeared at the BBC Proms and the Ravinia, Mostly Mozart, and Tanglewood Music Festivals, among others.
Robinson chatted with SF Classical Voice by phone from Los Angeles, where he was about to begin rehearsals for Otello. The conversation covered his unusual career path, what it’s like working with LA Opera Music Director James Conlon, and more.
You must get asked all the time, but how did singing win out over drumming, playing football, and working for a Fortune 500 company?
All these years, I’ve never been asked that question in that way. I’m not sure how it won out, but football leaves you — you don’t leave it. Yes, I worked in corporate America, but inside me, I wondered, “Why did God bless me with this voice?” I didn’t know it at the time, but now, after singing at those weddings, my friends all get to brag that “Morris Robinson sang for free.” And no, I didn’t sing at my own wedding!
I’m telling you that I wasn’t even the best singer on the college football team or in the high school of the performing arts. There were two guys who could outsing me. Where are they today? One is a pretty well-known gospel singer in the Atlanta area, and one from my college team [is] a pastor and he still sings. If we sang in church, he’d win, but onstage, I’d win.
What is it about LA Opera that is so special for you?
I had a lot of my firsts here in L.A., but the biggest connection is between myself and James Conlon. His wife heard me sing in Aspen years ago and mentioned me to him. He came to meet me when I was still a young artist doing Tannhäuser and he was auditioning [singers] for Verdi’s Requiem. He came to the theater at a rehearsal before the show and said, “I want to hear you sing a few things.”
The maestro never does things in small portions. He had me sing every note of the Verdi Requiem, then I went to sing Tannhäuser. That’s how we started our relationship. He has taught me a lot in music and given me a lot of opportunities and a bigger repertory. I tell young people, “It’s not getting opportunities but capitalizing on them to get reinvited.” You have to be prepared so you can take the bull by the horns and seize the moment. That comes from preparation, hard work, and study.
Let’s talk about Otello and your role as the Venetian ambassador, Lodovico. How did you prepare for the role, and had you sung it before?
The funny thing about Lodovico is it’s luxury casting and not a role I normally occupy. But it’s always cast with a leading bass. Last time it was done here was with Eric Halfvarson [in 2008]. I did it once in Houston, but because of the role — it’s so small but important and pivotal — I didn’t recall singing it, but I knew I had done it.
Part of my prep is [that] I’ll start learning it seven to eight months prior to rehearsal. Now, I’m learning my first Flying Dutchman for Santa Fe Opera. I start June 1, and while I’m here, I’ll be doing rehearsals with a pianist. The prep is the biggest thing, and you have to start early.
My biggest fear in life is to be unprepared. When you’re at Boston University, or Lindemann, you’re always drilled to be prepared. My job is to be note perfect — or note perfect off book. When I sang Porgy [in Porgy and Bess at La Scala in 2016], I never took a score to rehearsal with me. I prepare insanely; it’s the hallmark of a pro.
I worked with George Shirley [the first African American tenor to perform a leading role at the Met] a few years ago. He’s been retired and sang the old emperor in Turandot, and he showed up with a briefcase, he had a shirt and tie on, and he never looked at his music. This is how old pros carry themselves. I’ve been onstage here with leading veterans showing up and knowing their stuff.
In 2020, you were in a 90-minute Facebook Live discussion organized by LA Opera and moderated by soprano J’Nai Bridges about diversity — or the lack of it — in opera. Within that dialogue, which also included singers Julia Bullock and Russell Thomas — LAO’s current Otello — you said that you’ve never been hired by a Black person, never been directed by a Black person, never had a Black CEO of a company, and never had a Black conductor. Yikes! Is this still the case?
I said one line in there, and it was like the shot heard around the world. That line made everyone go, “Wow, he’s right.” It was a concerted effort to ameliorate that problem. In some instances, I believe, we’re trying to rapidly repair something that took years. People paid attention, and most companies are doing the best they can to ameliorate that wrong and make it better.
I still have not been directed by a Black person, but I have had a Black conductor for certain things but not for a fully staged opera, and I’ve seen them in other shows. I saw my first Black stage manager in Fort Worth. Part of the issue has always been that we’re not enough in the pipeline to do so. There was not a real direct path. I’ve seen a lot of assistant directors and some Black directors in places where the pipeline is being addressed, [and] a lot of people are learning the craft, so it’s in the works.
Am I a groundbreaker? For the most part, I speak up for those who feel they’re voiceless. My career has probably taken a hit because of that. And that takes courage to do, and it takes selflessness to do. I’d rather be able to look myself in the mirror and look at my son and say, “Your dad stood for something bigger than [him]self,” rather than be silent.
I have to say the right thing, and I will continue to do that. My kid is starting college — should I just shut up, shut up and sing, but not talk about the issues? I’m a warrior; I was always in the field of battle. I’m never afraid to stand up for myself or someone else. If there’s a problem, I try to address it. I’m OK with that. What I do know is that I’ve been blessed with talent, and when it’s time for me to sing, I put forward the best product of myself that’s possible.
I’m wondering why you aren’t singing in contemporary operas. Is there a dearth of parts for your voice? Would you like to?
When people hear my sound and my voice, they don’t think contemporary opera. But I would love to give it a shot. I have a piece coming up by Jeanine Tesori [Grounded] at Washington National Opera in October. I’m looking forward to that. She also wrote Blue [Glimmerglass Festival, 2019].
It’s an interesting trend, and I’m excited to be part of it, telling relevant stories, ones that relate to our stories. It’s not that old stories don’t relate, but it’s even more in-your-face when audiences enjoy something that’s relevant now or happening now.
You once said, “Basses are the voice of coolness.” How so?
I said that? In a lot of instances, I’ve said that basses are the kings, fathers, gods, devils, and priests. Sometimes I’m the calming voice, the wise voice. Sometimes I’m a fighter, a rabble-rouser. In all those things, they play naturally to my personality and how I’m built. Because I’m a father, I have developed a calming, reassuring, strong persona of what a father is.
And because I was raised in the church by a Baptist minister, I understand the benevolence and leadership aspect of that. As a football captain, I know how to go out on the 50-yard line, and I’m going to beat you before you beat me. In opera, those characters all exist. In Nabucco, it’s a wise priest; it’s a rabble-rouser in Aida; for Sarastro, you have to be fatherly. Art imitates life; my art has become what I am. So, let’s go out and kick some butt because these roles in my life kind of mirror one another all across the board.