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

Atlanta native Morris Robinson was known as “The Singing Football Cadet” at Citadel, then became a salesman. Today, he’s the Atlanta Symphony’s second-ever artist-in-residence.
Morris Robinson
Photograph by Ben Rollins

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.

Morris Robinson
Robinson performing as Ferrando in Il Trovatore, Cincinnati Opera, 2015

Photograph courtesy of Morris Robinson

Sedora “Louise” Robinson was a housewife who sang in the church choir and made sure that her home in Kings Forest, a middle-class neighborhood in southwestern Atlanta, was full of music. All four of Louise’s children sang and played an instrument. Morris took piano lessons and practiced with the Israel Baptist Church choir, standing on a chair to soak in the applause after a Sunday solo on “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus.” When he was just seven years old, his mother took him to try out for the Atlanta Boy Choir; he made first soprano. But after a couple of years, feeling out of place, he quit. “I was a big black kid from Southwest Atlanta, bigger than most of the boys in the choir,” he says. “And I wasn’t playing football.”

It turned out, though, that he was too big, 130 pounds by age 10, for his age group in organized ball. So he gravitated back to music. He picked up the more socially acceptable drums, which he played for cash in churches all over town. He also played baritone in junior high band, which fed into the prestigious Northside School of the Performing Arts (now North Atlanta). The day after Robinson made the high school band, his mother made him audition for the school choir. By senior year he was touring with the school’s stage show, which, to the young teen’s eternal embarrassment, involved wearing a sequined vest and tights. “Where do you even go to buy tights for a 200-pound dude?” says Derrick Bailey, who grew up two streets away from Robinson and played football at Northside. Not that Robinson suffered much ridicule. “There are easier targets,” says Bailey. “Leave the baritone player alone and go after the guy who plays piccolo.”

During spring of his freshman year, Robinson went out for football. When the band director came looking for him one day, the football coach said, “He won’t be in band anymore.” From then on, the teenager’s life was two-a-days in the sweltering Georgia summer, weekday a.m.’s in the weight room, and plowing lanes for running backs and protecting his QB on autumn Friday nights. And when it came time for college, Robinson was picking between Division 1 football programs instead of conservatories.

Robinson chose a full ride to the Citadel, where he enrolled as a 265-pound cadet. The offensive line coach at the time, Jeff Bleamer, set about addressing the gentle giant’s demeanor. “He was a really nice guy,” Bleamer says. “And he didn’t want to turn that personality off on the field; I gave him vocal lessons, all right, but they weren’t singing.” Bleamer credits Robinson’s extraordinary work ethic in shaping the soft underclassman into a senior All-American who dominated opposing defenses.

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.

Morris Robinson
Robinson (No. 58) played as a lineman for the Citadel, 1990

Photograph courtesy of Morris Robinson

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. Tonight’s show is a selection of songs, not an opera. Still, Robinson puts his mind in Italy in the 14th century, where Verdi’s opera Simon Boccanegra takes place. Once the crowd settles and the strings sound the ominous, mournful introduction to “Il lacerato spirito” and the horns answer, Robinson inhabits his character, Jacopo Fiesco, who is lamenting the death of his daughter, Maria.

Robinson’s voice rumbles to life as he extends a hand to the audience, as if opening a pit in the middle of the auditorium. Hurling thunderbolts over the crescendoing 72-piece orchestra, Fiesco condemns both the seducer who brought this tragedy upon his family and the Virgin Mary, who allowed it to happen. As he holds the final sorrowful note—steadily, without a hint of congestion—even the patrons who don’t speak the language and haven’t found the translation on page 37 of the program can feel this father’s pain.

Robinson’s command of his voice (not to mention Renaissance Italian) didn’t come to him naturally. When he began studying under Daniels at BU in 1999, he was little more than raw talent. “He didn’t have the musical education,” says Daniels. “He had no sense of style, no vocal technique.”

Robinson spent hours each day learning how to harness his voice’s raw power—to securely access his high range, add more richness and nuance to his lower register, and smooth out the transition between them. He studied Italian, German, and French—the tongues of classical opera—including diction and style as well as comprehension. And he struggled with deportment, moving and singing in period velveteen.

Morris Robinson
Robinson performing as Sarastro in The Magic Flute, Sydney Opera House, 2014;

Photograph courtesy of Morris Robinson

In his spare hours, Robinson worked at Best Buy, but after a stellar debut in 1999 with the Boston Lyric Opera as the King of Egypt in Verdi’s Aida, roles started flooding in: Bartolo in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and other parts in Madama Butterfly, Don Giovanni, Salome. In 2001 he placed third in the New England region of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, which ultimately led to an invitation to audition for the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. He was one of only nine singers accepted from all over the globe. He and his wife moved to New York City, where he made his Met debut in Beethoven’s Fidelio. His mother was in the audience.

Now on a world stage, Robinson worked even harder. He paired with instructor Mark Oswald, a former baritone with the Met, who gave Robinson more than 200 lessons over three years. Oswald worked with Robinson on breathing exercises. His student sang arpeggios in every key, which helped build muscular support for every vowel sound, of which there are about 20 in the combined European languages. Robinson recalls it as a “vocal gym.”

“He had to build his voice note for note, vowel by vowel,” says Oswald. “He needed refinement as he ascended the range. But he had the voice of God on the low notes.”

The roles of gods and titans in Wagner and Verdi soon came to Robinson from opera houses in Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Sydney. To compete against singers who’ve been training since childhood, he simply worked harder. He paid a pianist by the hour to run through the parts with him, recording the session on his phone. After weeks of listening to the recording on repeat and singing a cappella while pacing his home, he gradually absorbed the role.

Morris Robinson
Robinson performing as Joe in Show Boat, San Francisco Opera, 2014, with his son, Miles.

Photograph courtesy of Morris Robinson

Robinson was also approached about roles in musicals. But he was reluctant, for fear of being typecast early in his career. Then, in 2012, he was offered the role of Joe in Show Boat, which meant the classic bass solo “Ol’ Man River.” “Show Boat was a big deal,” he says. “I’d been working my entire career to that point to sing German and Italian repertoire at reputable houses. I sat with that contract in my lap for a while. I asked myself, ‘Have I done enough yet in this business to justify doing this?’ The answer was, ‘I think so.’”

Around that time, Robinson and his family (including his young son) moved into a comfortable six-bedroom Tyrone home near family and good schools. “If they don’t hire me to do it, they’re going to hire another black actor who’s going to make all this money,” he says. “I’ve got a Hummer, an Escalade, and a kid who has to go to college.”

Last November, Robinson’s homecoming was complete when he was selected as the ASO’s second-ever artist-in-residence. In this capacity, Robinson acts as a community advocate, gives recitals and masters classes for music students, appears at ASO outreach events, and of course, performs, as he is tonight in Symphony Hall. The residency runs through October.

As the applause rises and ebbs between songs, Robinson looks out upon the darkened house. No one, including himself, could have imagined he would one day be standing on that stage. No one, of course, except his mother. Just two years after she saw his debut in New York, Louise Robinson died of a stroke. “Mom wanted me to sing more than anything,” he says. “Mom always knows.”

The orchestra starts the next song, a ragtime-style tune with a plucked banjo casually keeping time. Despite Robinson having wiped several times with a gray towel, the sweat still glistens on his brow. The song is written for a baritone, and even without the congestion, it would reach into the loftier parts of his register. It’s also the first time he’s ever performed this number in public. “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” is a song from the second act of Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, a love story between a disabled beggar and a former prostitute in the black tenements of Depression-era Charleston. Porgy is a role that Robinson has intentionally avoided, for the same reasons he avoided Show Boat.

Morris Robinson
Robinson with the ASO, 2016

Photograph by Jeff Roffman

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.

This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue.