Basso Profundo: How a college football standout became an international opera star

04.22.16
Morris Robinson
Atlanta Magazine

Morris Robinson is trying to lay low, something that’s never been easy for him. If anyone failed to see the 6-foot-3, 300-plus-pound vocalist lumbering through the lobby of the Woodruff Arts Center an hour ago in black ostrich-skin boots, tuxedo pants, and untucked maroon T-shirt, they certainly heard his voice. Or rather felt it—a sonorous “Hello! How’s it going?” to the doorman at Symphony Hall that seemed to make the walls, the carpeted concrete floor, even the humid air waver like a tuning fork. 

Tonight Robinson’s bass is even deeper thanks to some congestion—the onset of what he fears is a cold. That’s why he spent the afternoon resting alone in a darkened Buckhead hotel room instead of surrounded by family at his home in Tyrone, just 35 minutes south. And it’s why he sequestered himself in a cramped dressing room in the bowels of the Woodruff, where he periodically cleared out his pipes with bursts of la-la-la’s, doh’s, and rolling Italian rrrrr’s that made the white-tied instrumentalists start as they passed. And it’s why now, minutes before showtime, Robinson is backstage pacing, size-15 boots falling heavy on the hardwood to and from the stage door, where he keeps peeking out at the packed house. “I’m going to own the room,” he says to himself. “When I walk out, I’m going to take control.”  

The sweat is beading on his shaved head. This is a rare show in Robinson’s hometown, a recital to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, his sixth performance in this building as artist-in-residence for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Many of the people out there are friends and family. Some remember him as DeRhon—his middle name—the boy who sang in church but set aside music to play football, becoming an All-American lineman at the Citadel, before moving north to embark on a career in business. Maybe they’ve heard something about the man who, in his 30s, rediscovered classical music and left the world of corporate sales to become an opera singer. It’s time. Robinson takes a last swig of lukewarm water and straightens his jacket. He clears his throat one final time and quickly blows a kiss to the sky, to the one lifelong fan who isn’t here—the mother who seemed to know all along that her son’s voice was meant to stir the masses.

Off the field he played piano and directed the gospel choir, which was a refuge and community for the few African American cadets. Music was a way to feel connected to his childhood and God. It was also getting him some national exposure: “The Singing Football Cadet” was featured briefly in Sports Illustrated and on CBS College Football Today. In 1991 he even sang the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game.

Robinson was scouted by NFL teams, but he was deemed too small. As for music, that didn’t seem like a viable career option either. His English degree ultimately took him to Washington, D.C., where he worked in corporate sales for 3M. En route to a conference, he met a flight attendant named Denise, and the two eventually married. One day his young wife and his mother scheduled a tryout with the Choral Arts Society of Washington, a pro-caliber volunteer chorus. “I had a 1 p.m. audition, and I needed to prepare a song,” says Robinson. He still had “Tuba Mirum” from Mozart’s Requiem memorized from high school. He rushed to the National Cathedral and made the cut. Still, it wasn’t until Robinson moved to New Hampshire for a sales job with Advanced Elastomer Systems in 1997 that he saw music as anything more than just a hobby. “I knew I had this talent, and I could see that people loved it, but I didn’t know what would afford me the opportunity to do it for a living,” he says. He enrolled in the continuing education program at the New England Conservatory of Music and performed in weekend shows throughout the region. It was at one of these offbeat concerts, playing the devil in a tiny production of Satanella in Salem, Massachusetts, where Robinson caught his break.

One night Sharon Daniels, a former Broadway and New York City Opera singer who taught voice at Boston University, was in the audience. When Robinson made his entrance from the back of the hall, Daniels heard all she needed to. “It was chilling,” she says. “After 25 years of professional singing, I knew what that sound was.” After the show, Daniels approached the devil with a deal. “I asked him if he had ever considered taking his voice seriously,” she says. She couldn’t promise anything more than an audition for the prestigious BU program, which, if he were accepted, would require a full-time commitment; he’d have to quit his corporate job. He took her card and said he’d think about it. About a week later, Robinson called Daniels to set up an audition. A shower of applause greets Robinson as his boots pound a path to center stage. He’s standing in front of the conductor and the seated orchestra, wearing a black suit jacket and matching button-down with the collar open. 

Now, 17 years into his career, Robinson feels like he’s established himself enough as a classical artist in the serious world of opera to take on Porgy’s baritone in a performance at Milan’s legendary La Scala opera house this fall. Robinson’s decision has sparked a bit of controversy among both mainstream classical musicians who don’t accept Gershwin as a true opera and fellow African Americans who consider the stereotype-laden work offensive. “The part that hurts the worst is that it comes from within my demographic,” says Robinson. “Little do they know that the same fire that I developed on the football field, they just ignited it. I don’t usually try to be the best ever; I usually just try to be the best me. But now, I’m fired up.” There is no strain in Robinson’s voice as he streamlines his operatic bravado into the pop standard on the comforts of having nothing to lose: “Got my gal, got my Lord,” and then the sustained high note on “Got my song.” The audience comes to its feet. At intermission, well-wishers crowd the backstage, congratulating Robinson. A swarm of friends, family, former teammates and their kids. The instrumentalists scurrying to use the bathroom have to duck and dodge their way through the reunion. People take turns posing for photos beneath his massive outstretched arms. He does his best not to speak beyond a few thank-you’s. His part of the program now over, he’ll skip out on the remainder of the show and sneak back to the Buckhead hotel room to unwind alone in peace. He’s got another performance, an hour-long set of Russian opera here at this same time tomorrow night. And he’s worried he might be getting a cold.  

Read the rest of the review here