From football to opera: The unstoppable Morris Robinson on beating the odds

09.13.16
Morris Robinson
USA Today

Morris Robinson grew up in a family of gospel singers in Atlanta, but he didn’t sing much as a child. When he did, his siblings would sometimes tease him.

“They would look at me and say, ‘You sing weird,’” he remembers.

Robinson played football in high school and college, then worked in corporate sales. He didn’t take formal voice lessons until he was 30 years old.

Now, after a mid-life career pivot, he sings opera in front of thousands of people all over the world. His booming, bass voice has echoed through some of the most famous venues in classical music. And to hear the music critics talk, his career is getting hotter every season.

An unlikely opera star? Maybe. But if you’ve met Robinson, you know “unlikely” isn’t a word that describes him very well.

“I don’t settle,” says Robinson, seated in his Georgia home during a rare break between jobs. “I don’t accept mediocrity. I don’t accept pretty good. I don’t accept good. That’s not me. That’s not how I’m made.”

He tells a story to illustrate the kind of dogged determination that propelled him to success in the elite world of professional opera, despite his lack of formal training.

“I don’t sing in French, but the last time I sang at Carnegie Hall, I sang in French,” he says.

It took an expensive French tutor. It took two months of practice. It took hours of recording his vocals so he could hear every nuance of his voice. It took painstaking attention to how he pronounced every syllable.

But on opening night: “I sound like all the rest of these people, as prepared and as Frenchy as I’m supposed to sound.”

Of course he did. For Robinson, “can’t” isn’t a word that computes. “It might take me more time to do, but there’s nothing I can’t do if I put my mind to it.”

That’s Robinson the rising opera star. But it’s also Robinson the former football player. Though the football stadium might seem pretty far away from Carnegie Hall, he says success in one isn’t so different from success in the other.

“I think athletics equip us with a lot of skills that we don’t realize are transferable to our lives,” Robinson says.

He says football taught him how to undergo something he calls “the click” — the change that makes a sweet kid from a nice Baptist family become focused and aggressive enough to flatten an opponent on his way to the end zone.

Even now, he still feels that pre-game adrenaline rush before he goes on stage to sing.

“If there was a locker, I’d probably bang my head on it,” Robinson says.

Perhaps not coincidentally, he started singing in high school — right around the same time he joined the football team. In some ways, balancing his two passions was an exercise in reconciling seemingly different personas: the kid who leveled opponents on the field, and the kid who sang Mozart’s Requiem.

“I needed to be really good at football to justify being good at that,” Robinson says.

Later, after enrolling at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, Robinson continued to sing casually, but never dreamed of a career in opera. He toyed with the idea of playing professional football, but it became clear that the NFL was looking for guys with more speed and girth.

“So, then it’s like, 'OK, shift,'" Robinson says. “Rather than wallow in defeat and sulk over the opportunities that you missed, you gotta retool.”

Fast forward to now, past the part where Robinson quit a good job with all the trappings of responsible adulthood. Past when he was accepted to Boston University's Opera Institute. Past when he studied languages in Italy. And past when he was accepted into a prestigious young artists program at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Robinson says that setting a good example for his 11-year-old son is a huge motivator for him, and he tries to show his son that it’s not all about spotlights and applause. It’s about getting a paycheck. Paying the mortgage every month. Providing for your family.

“I’m on the road a lot, but he’s just like me — it’s the weirdest thing ever,” says Robinson. “My motivation is to justify all the time I’m away by showing him there’s a reason for this.”

But all the long hours and nights away from home are also about something bigger than paying the bills. Robinson says he feels it’s his duty as an artist to share opera with the world. And he also feels a responsibility to represent African Americans in a genre of the arts that has struggled with a lack of diversity.

“I feel like it’s not just my job,” he says. “It’s my calling. What I do at this point, it’s my responsibility.”

Robinson has always chosen his roles carefully, wary of being typecast. For years, he resisted playing Porgy in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” for that reason — but also because he didn’t believe he was ready vocally to take on the challenging role.

Until now. This fall, he’s singing the part of Porgy at the historic La Scala opera house in Milan.

These days, Robinson isn’t home much. “If I’m at home, I’m not working,” he says. “And that’s not good.”

He lives out of hotel rooms during opera season (which he points out, serendipitously coincides with football season, give or take a month). And he finds that he can prepare better for performances if he seeks out an environment that reminds him of home.

“I need that level of normalcy when I’m away from home,” he says. “I need a home away from home.”

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