NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of football player-turned-opera singer Morris Robinson.
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There are many paths to the stage in New York, but not many have taken Morris Robinson's route.
Of course, not every performer’s previous experience involves taking 300-pound guys and drilling them into the ground. Morris Robinson would be the first to admit his move from offensive lineman to operatic bass was not something he saw coming.
“I've always had this music inside of me, and I never really dreamed that I'd end up doing this,” he says. “And I certainly didn't dream I’d do opera, because the first opera I saw I was in."
Robinson is 35. He came to New York three years ago to enter the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Development Program, and he is already making a name for himself in the opera world, and in New York, where we've seen him singing at Yankee Stadium, and at the Port Authority ceremony on the third anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
He and his wife live in Harlem, and in his apartment, his two passions often collide.
“I think preparing an opera score while watching football games is probably unique to me," Robinson says.
This is not some guy who just played a little ball on the weekend; Robinson was a two-time All-American offensive lineman at the Citadel. He loved the game, and he loved the life.
“You become part of that,” he says. “You get a football scholarship, you go on recruiting trips, and you're one of those guys. That is your life."
But at 6’2”, 285 pounds at the time, Robinson says he was considered too small for the National Football League, and the dream died hard.
“It just didn't work out for me. So they say, ÎSorry, you had a great college career, now go out and be normal,’” he says. “I had to go back and rely on my academic degree to get a really good job. I still had the music thing on back burner, but who knew I'd be singing opera right now? It's about leaving yourself options. I’m grateful that that happened, but I’m also very bitter that this person that I was and this life that I lived for so long got snatched away from me."
Robinson is constantly finding parallels between his football and opera universes. Is there really much difference between studying a playbook and an opera score in German?
And then there are the minutes just before the big event.
“People think when you get ready for football game you’re banging your head into a locker and punching your buddies and your hi-fiving and going berserk,” he says. “Well, I played offensive line, so we refer to what we do as a quiet rage, a silent rage. There’s a lot of mental concentration. I pace back and forth in my dressing room and the guys say, ÎHe's psycho.’ But I get this focused look in my eyes, and you don't want to think of anything except what you have to do."
Opera and football crowds are not often confused with each other. And yet there are lessons that extend from the stadium to the stage.
”We played the University of South Carolina at their school, their homecoming, with 82,000 fans in the stands, and we had 3,000 fans there - the enormity of it can really put you in shell shock,” he says. “Opening night [for] ÎAida’ at the Metropolitan Opera, you’re singing the [part of the] king, and if you can block that out and really get into what you’re doing, forget about the enormity of it all, I think you can be successful."
So how does a former football player end up singing for the Metropolitan Opera? Morris Robinson's story started in Atlanta. Everyone in his house sang, and his grandfather and father were both Baptist ministers.
"I remember myself and my three sisters always being called on at the last minute, before he delivered a sermon, to get up and sing a song,” he says. "They won't let me sing with them, even til this day. I'm the one who gets paid to sing. If we're at a family function they will not allow me to sing with them. I've got that other kind of voice - they have more soulful, gospel-type voices, R&B."
Music was always a part of his life, in school and college, but on the side. When the NFL said no thanks, Robinson began working as a salesman for a company.
“It became frustrating that I knew I was capable of doing so much more than selling widgets,” he says. “It became frustrating that the guy across from me on the other side of the desk determined whether or not I made this order or made this sale or got this deal signed. It was that frustration, that Sunday afternoon dreading Monday morning, that picking up your voice mail, the mundaneness of it all — it just really got to me.”
So unbeknownst to Robinson, his wife Denise set up a choral audition in the Washington D.C. area.
“I go down there with nothing but [a piece] from Mozart's ÎRequiem.’ The guy starts playing and I start [singing], and the guy stops playing [and says], ÎOK - this is a joke. Where are you coming from?’" he says. “And I said, ÎI work here in sales, but I did this in high school 10 years ago.’ And he says, ÎI don't know what you are doing, but you should be singing for a living.’"
Robinson's job eventually took him to Boston, where his wife encouraged him to enroll at the New England Conservatory of Music. After two years at the Boston University Opera Program, it was on to the Met and New York.
There were plenty of opportunities, and not too many moments of resentment. But there were some.
”There was a little bit of animosity there [of], ÎYou didn't pay your dues, you didn't go to conservatory like I did, you didn't study the languages when you were undergrad, you were a jock,’” he says. “Of course, they didn't say that to my face, but there were rumblings of it. Some of them led to a little bit of a confrontation now and then. Only once, but there was a reason it was only once."
Robinson had always been praised for his voice, but when he started singing opera he says, “You find out all the things you don't do well: Your diction isn’t that good; your phrasing isn’t great; you don't have command of the language; you don't know what you're singing about."
The opera world doesn't think that anymore. Nor the people who have invited him to sing at some Yankee playoff games.
“From the time I walked out of the dugout to the time I walked back to my seat, I had missed 18 phone calls,” he says. “My stupid frat brothers and teammates were all calling, ÎYo dude, I see you on TV!’ Why call me while I'm singing? Do you think it’s taped? That confirms the theory of the dumb jock, I guess, no matter how intelligent they are.”
When you think football, you think common man. When you think opera, you think high society. Robinson wants to change that, and he says his outfit at Yankee Stadium was part of the plan; no tuxedo, just a pair of jeans.
“I think the normal beer drinking guy at the game who is giving me a high-five, who is asking me to take a picture with him and his kid, feels that this guy is pretty cool and he sings at the Met, [so] I'm going to go check him out one night,” he says.
Robinson hopes one day to merge his love of gospel, hip hop and rhythm and blues with his opera career.
And who knows? As his opera star continues to rise, maybe he'll get that call from the NFL after all, and he'll walk onto the field and sing.
- Budd Mishkin