May 14, 2002
Reprinted from The Citadel
That singing knob
As long as he can remember Morris DeRhon Robinson always wanted to play football. At The Citadel, the 6’2, 290-pound offensive guard was first team All-Southern Conference, first team Kodak All-American, and second team Sports Network All-American. So how did this college athlete wind up in the world of opera?
the choir boy
Robinson grew up in Atlanta. The only son of a Baptist minister and a mother determined her children would grow up successful, he had three younger sisters. He also had a talent that practically followed him from the crib. He was only 6 years old when he sang Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus before the Israel Baptist Church congregation. He was so little that the choir director stood him up in a chair so that everyone could see him.
As a child, Robinson sang in the elite Atlanta Boy’s Choir. On Saturdays when other little boys were dirty from football practice, the freshly pressed choir boy was jealous because he couldn’t play.
“By the time I was ten years old, I was large and could not participate with my age group,” Robinson said. “Maybe it was a blessing in disguise because had I been able to play ball, I might not have been singing at that time. And the Atlanta Boys’ Choir gave me my first introduction to reading music and the classical style of singing.”
The Robinson kids all took piano lessons and the girls played the violin too. His mother was their driving force, insisting they use their talents, always telling them, “If you don’t use it, God will take it away.”
Robinson’s high school years were spent at Atlanta’s Northside School of the Performing Arts where he was the first student allowed to participate in both music theater and band. His mother actually made him get out of bed the night before the audition to practice singing. Before Robinson’s freshman year, students participated in either chorus or band, not both. He had already been accepted into the band when the music program director heard him sing and decided to make Robinson the exception. That year he made all-city band and all-state chorus. After that, the lure of football was too great and he gave up band to play football.
the football player
When it came time to go to college, Robinson had a several choices. A local wealthy family offered to pay his way to any conservatory he chose to study music. Several colleges offered him scholarships to study music. But Robinson wanted to play football.
“My thinking at the time was that you only have a few years to play ball, and I could always sing. I enjoyed music as a hobby—it always came so naturally that I didn’t really take it seriously. Football was a different thing. I had to work really hard to be a good ball player,” Robinson said.
“I chose The Citadel because the coaching staff seemed interested in my graduating, stressing that The Citadel was a school first and football was a vehicle that would allow me to attend this great school for free.”
Robinson did not abandon music.
As a freshman, he entertained upperclassmen by singing at dinner mess and after study period. To the second battalion and regimental staff, he became known as “that singing knob.”
He was also director and co-founder of the Gospel Choir. At the annual Christmas Candlelight Service, he sang Oh Holy Night his sophomore, junior, and senior years. As a senior he sang the national anthem at the NBA All-Star game and was featured in CBS College Football Today and Sports Illustrated for being a diverse student-athlete. Robinson also sang for the Cooper River Bridge Run one year and for the grand opening of the Charleston Visitors’ Center. In his spare time, he made money singing at local churches and weddings.
After graduating with a degree in English, Robinson went to work for 3M Technologies in sales, covering the Washington, D.C., and Virginia area for the data storage markets division. With frequent travel, a company car, a nice expense account, and a good salary, he was on his way to a successful career. But something was amiss.
“I often wondered why God gave me this voice, and why I wasn’t using it, except to sing at my teammates’ weddings.”
On the way to his national sales meeting in Palm Springs, Calif., Robinson met Denise Wright, a flight attendant whom he has now been married to for six years.
Without his knowledge Denise set up an audition with the Choral Arts Society, which sings with the national symphony.
“She was tired of me always wondering how to get back into singing, so she just took the initiative and set it up,” he said.
The director who heard Robinson audition didn’t think he was suited for chorus, but recognizing talent, decided Robinson needed to get back into music. The director gave Robinson a place in the chorus, and he also introduced him to Todd Duncan, the original Porgy in the famous musical Porgy and Bess. At 92, Duncan, who still had an ear of gold, began giving Robinson his first real technical singing lessons.
Soon afterward, Robinson’s job took him to the Boston area where he landed a place in the New England Conservatory of Music’s continuing education program. One program led to another and one role landed him another. When Director of the Boston University Opera Institute Sharon Daniels heard him in one of his performances, she suggested that he should sing for a living. When Daniels asked Robinson to audition for her program, he and Denise decided that if he were good enough to earn a scholarship, he would pursue the opportunity and quit his job.
the rising opera star
The Opera Institute at Boston University is a prestigious program that bridges the gap between students finishing their academic training and beginning their professional careers. The program is considered one of the top five of its kind, and everyone, Robinson said, has a master’s degree in music.
Everyone, that is, except for Robinson. Daniels offered Robinson a full scholarship with stipend into her program based on his talent, not his credentials. After his first week in the Boston University program, Robinson landed the title role in Blue Beard’s Castle. Shortly afterward, he landed the role of the king of Egypt in Verdi’s Aida with the Boston Lyric Opera.
“It was an amazingly trying and exciting time. I went from corporate America to singing two roles—one with the largest opera company in New England.”
During the next two years, Robinson began making a name for himself performing several roles with the Boston University program and the Boston Lyric Opera where he began learning about singing in Italian, German, and French.
“The two years I spent at BU were rewarding and tough. I liken it to drinking water out of a fire hydrant.”
Robinson performed well in those two tough years.
T.J. Medrek in a Boston Herald review of Boston University’s The Marriage of Figaro, wrote, “With one notable exception, the singers were a tad immature vocally for their roles. That exception was Morris Robinson as Bartolo, who starts off a villain and ends up Figaro’s long-lost father. Robinson already familiar to Boston Lyric Opera audiences from short but prominent roles in Aida, Madame Butterfly, and don Giovanni, possesses a magnificently sonorous bass voice that was a delight to hear in a role usually cast more as a character part.”
Last March Robinson placed third in the Metropolitan Opera Competition in New England and subsequently got a call inviting him to New York City to audition for the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindeman Young Artists Development Program. Robinson says that it’s the most prestigious program in the world and only has nine singers enrolled at any one time. After two trips to New York, he was asked to do a stage audition for Maestro James Levine.
“That was a freaky experience. It was just amazing to me that I had started this thing called ‘opera’ a year and a half earlier and was about to sing an audition for the most respected authority and conductor in the business, on the largest stage in the world, in the largest opera house in the world.
“The Citadel experience paid off at that time. I thought about playing against schools like Carolina in front of 70,000 with a 300-pound guy in front of me trying to bash my head in, and this didn’t seem too tough. I think I was relaxed because The Citadel teaches you to deal with enormous amounts of stress and teaches you to remain calm when things are tough.”
after the audition, Robinson was offered a spot in the program. He and
Denise recently moved to New York City where he is now caught up in the
frenzied world of opera, a star in the making. Sometimes, though, when
time between rehearsals and lessons permits, he spends a weekend in front
of ESPN watching his first love football and remembering those days at
The Citadel when he once played.