Q & A: Morris Robinson on Racism in Opera, Verdi & the Metropolitan Opera

By Francisco Salazar

Bass Morris Robinson is one of the most sought after performers in opera.

He has slowly built up his repertoire performing at many leading houses including the Metropolitan Opera, where he has been singing for 18 years in smaller and leading roles.

This summer, Robinson, a graduate from the Met Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program, was scheduled to sing at the Cincinnati Opera in a production of “Aida” and was set to go on tour in Europe. He was also scheduled to make his highly anticipated role debut at the Filippo in Verdi’s “Don Carlo.”

However, due to the pandemic, al his performances were canceled. However, the loss of work has not made Robinson any less busy. He has spent the last few months connecting with his fans, colleagues, and friends and he is set to judge the Tri-Cities Opera vocal competition.

He has also been vocal and outspoken on racial inequality in the workplace and has joined a number of panel discussions advocating for change.

Robinson spoke with OperaWire about social reform, racism, the Metropolitan Opera, and his hopes for the 2020-21 season.

OperaWire: During the pandemic, the death of George Floyd left a huge impact on our society with massive protests erupting throughout the world. We have seen similar reactions in years past to similar displays of police brutality and racism. How is this year different in your view?

Morris Robinson: I think that it has brought a tremendous awakening for everyone. The reason why this event has been so different and so impactful is that we have seen people get shot and seen deaths that are wrong but when you watch someone die right before your eyes and you juxtapose that with someone who looks into the camera without any remorse or empathy, you realize the sickness that permeates throughout the belly of this country is really deep-seated and real. The impact of this has heightened the awareness of this across the world.

I think that this is really changing things across the world and I have already participated in a number of panels. The awareness is there and the question is what do we do about it? How do we go about eliminating this?

OW: How have you been impacted by systemic racism in your career?

MR: When you’re the victim of racism in a setting like the opera world, you have no clue as to how you are being affected by it. You just don’t get the role or don’t get the job and you’re not made aware of the reasons why because this business is very subjective.

I can’t say I haven’t been affected because I have had certain questions about things in the past. But I have also been blessed to do other things. The opera world is a microcosm of the big world and there are people that come from different backgrounds and cultures affected by a lot of preconceptions. So to think that the human element doesn’t factor into casting would be absurd. I am sure that it has affected us.

OW: How do you think we can change racial inequality in the opera world and have you seen any change in these past years?

MR: Do I see changes? Yes! I see people that are being more conscientious. Do I think it should affect the artistic integrity of what is going on on stage? Absolutely not.  I think that the best people who can do the work should be there.

But I do think that we have a history of allowing business decisions to outrank artistic decisions. And I do see a change that people are aware of what’s going on and hopefully, it will affect the programming on stage and the casting on stage, which will in turn affect the audience base.

I think it is really important that real change happens at the top. I have said this before and I am not tired of saying it. I have been singing at the Metropolitan Opera and many houses for 20 years and I have never had a Black conductor. I have never been hired by a Black Artistic Administrator. I’ve never worked for a Black General Manager. I never worked for a Black CEO. And I have never worked for a Black director. I have also never had Black stage managers in my entire career.

The only Black coach I have ever had is Howard Watkins, who is at the Metropolitan Opera. In the hiring positions responsible for the casting, repertoire, Conductors, directors, and music staff, there is not a single Black person in the North American Opera marketplace. So it is very difficult to imagine how diversity can be addressed appropriately when there isn’t diversity represented in the administration.

OW: There has been this narrative about the Black community not being as invested in opera as other communities are. How do you shift this perspective and make opera more inclusive?

MR: We can talk about young white people who used to not like hip hop and when they were exposed to it, they started to like it. I think African American and Latino populations love opera and classical music.

When I have invited my minority brothers and sisters, they have been amazed by the experience. They really get into it and when they see someone who looks like or represents them on stage, they are generally more amenable to attend. 

Opera can be an intimidating environment and I’ve had my friends who go in blue jeans and a nice shirt feel bad. It is even more intimidating when you don’t have anyone who looks like you on stage and you feel even more ostracized. So that is something that has to change.

OW: Over the past few years, there has been a lot of conversation over whether or not something like “Aida” should only be performed by Black singers. Do you think that certain operas should only be sung by singers of specific races or ethnicities that the characters represent? 

MR: “Porgy and Bess” is mandated in the copyright and it was written for a purpose and they wrote it for us. But I think that if the ethnicity or the culture or the hue of the skin color is part of the story, you should absolutely be able to make it look that way. And I am not saying you have to hire an Ethiopian princess but it should look that way. But if you want to go that way, every person on that stage should be Black because in Ethiopia there are nothing but dark-skinned, brown people.

I think opera is very creative and imaginative.  If you believe that Pavarotti can be a war hero like Radames, then you can believe that a flute can control animals and Sarastro can be Black in “The Magic Flute.” I don’t have a problem with those things.



OW: Opera is a worldwide institution. Do you believe that Europe sees these cultural divides and race relations in a different way?

MR: It is my understanding that European institutions cast African Americans in different types of roles. African Americans in the past, have generally had to leave America in order to pursue work opportunities in Europe.

Opera is more their culture and kids grow up listening to classical music in Europe.  You can literally hear it throughout the streets. Jazz, Rap, and Gospel is more our culture but we Americans do have an appreciation for all types of music. 

OW: Talking about casting and having performed in shows like “Porgy and Bess,” do you feel the environment changes when you have multiple Black artists on stage with you?

MR: Porgy is a role that I believed I would never sing. When I was asked to do it at La Scala however, I considered that an honor that I couldn’t pass up. As for the question of the environment, working with an all-black cast is a totally different experience.

My first was at La Scala and then I did one in Vienna. Those two were wonderful experiences, but those casts were multicultural. Then I did one in Cincinnati. This is the first one where I got a total sense of community and family.  Being black in this business, there are universal struggles pertinent to each of us across the board. Being together in the same room, changed the atmosphere that most of us have come to know as normal. The communal spirit unique to Porgy rehearsals made the rehearsal process really fun and rewarding. We have our own language, style, swag, and flow like a lot of cultures do.

The feeling of family and teamwork rendered us all selfless and submissive to the overall objective of bringing a beautiful story to our audiences. 

When I am the only person of color in a cast, I always feel like I have a chip on my shoulders and I’m constantly trying to prove myself and justify my worthiness to belong on that stage. I also feel like I have to be on my A-game all the time, but that is of course a natural thing. I always concentrate my efforts on me doing the best I can.

When I am not the only person of color however, there is such a sense of immense pride. You feel a difference in the space.

OW: You have been very outspoken throughout this period and have joined on several panels with Black artists. Tell me the experience of engaging in these conversations and what you learned from each other?

MR: Everyone on those talks, I have their numbers on my cellphone and we have discussed these things all the time. What I discovered is that it is very uncomfortable to talk about them publically.

The one by the LA Opera was seen by over 30,000 people and I got a lot of inbox messages from administrators, directors, and white colleagues. It is mindblowing because they are really paying attention and a lot of them are in shock because people are really unaware of all the perpetual paranoia we carry with us. I am very guarded in the environment in which I work because I am always cognizant of my big Black presence, and how, early on, that could make my white colleagues uncomfortable.

The task is being aware of the aforementioned while singing in very discernable Italian. In general, regarding the talks, I think people found it really shocking to hear a firsthand account of the number of variables that come into play for a Black person to perform at a top level in this business. 

OW: During this time of COVID and the protests and movements that have gone on, what have you learned about yourself?

MR: I am the type of singer that never has any time off. My manager and I had planned that I have the month of June off so I was able to be home for a small break in my very busy schedule. As it turns out now, I’ve had March, April, May, June, and July off so far. In as much as it is unfortunate to lose so much income and work, I’ve had time to reflect.

Interestingly, I am working harder from my computer, IPad, and cellphone because I have so many deliverables as it pertains to the business aspect of the Opera World. I have also been able to concentrate on the things that are most important to me whereas, before, I was always catching up on studying roles and moving from city to city. Being home has given me an opportunity to enjoy the things for which I have worked really hard over the past several years.  

OW: What were some of the performances that you were looking forward to doing that got canceled?

MR: All of them. But most importantly was the Filippo in “Don Carlo” in Dallas. I’ve done the Inquisitor and I consider myself as one of the go-to Inquisitors. And now I was really looking forward to showing the world that post-“Porgy and Bess,” Morris Robinson has the ability to not only carry a show but carry the emotional responsibility that goes along with being an emotional lead. And I didn’t get a chance to do it and I worked my butt off for a year learning that role. That was disheartening.

There was also the Monteverdi tour that I was going to do in Europe. We were going to Eight European cities, which included appearances in Berlin, Prague, BBC Proms, Vienna, and Lucerne with John Elliot Gardiner.

Losing those concerts really hurt. It would have really gotten me more recognition at the international level. I still have things for the Met and Hamburg and Tokyo and Salzburg, and I really hope that those go on.

OW: Having been able to work on the role of Filippo, tell me about your process in studying this demanding part.

MR: There is nothing vocally challenging except for the aria because the beginning of it, you have to be in a daze almost as if you were asleep. And those moments for a big stentorian bass like me require that you relinquish that which you are known for and become that which isn’t normal for you. That requires vocal and artistic vulnerability.

The emotional vulnerability is seen throughout the role. When you’re a stentorian bass you are the king, devil, assassin and everyone listens to you. In this role, however, you have that power but you’re hurt. Porgy was the perfect set up because I had to deal with emotional issues and he is a strong character but his heart is broken by the woman he loves. The same thing with Filippo. He is strong but his heart is broken. There is so much that is tearing at his heart so I was looking forward to showing my capabilities as a singing actor. I feel like this opportunity was usurped by the Coronavirus.

OW: Having done the Inquisitor so many times, tell me what would it have felt like to do Filippo and the Iniquistor’s big scene now understanding both perspectives?

MR: I love singing the Inquisitor because he wins the battle and wins vocally. The way it’s written is like anything you can sing, I can sing louder and higher. Every time Filippo comes in and establishes a note, the inquisitor comes in and sings higher and louder. Every time Filippo gives up. The drama is really well written in the score. The inquisitor is vocally and dramatically more imposing. It’s a battle of wills. For that part, I love playing the Inquisitor.

But I was looking forward to playing King Filippo because I wanted to challenge the Inquisitor in a way that it would become unpredictable. I wanted to make the Inquisitor work for that win. And since I have sung him, I know every part and how the role works. That scene between the two is so crucial and even though Filippo opens the act with his aria, many basses have told me that in the back of their minds, they are always thinking about the duet with the Inquisitor.

And then of course is the duet with Elisabetta and the quartet. It is a long stretch. You are on the whole act.

OW: This upcoming season you are scheduled to return to the Metropolitan Opera for a production of “Nabucco.” It is an earlier opera and one that differs from later Verdi roles you sing. Tell me how this role differs from others you sing?

MR: This show should be called “Zaccaria” because it is the largest Bass role in the Italian repertoire and I am happy the Met asked me to sing it. I was told that it is only assigned to the best Basses they have on the roster. It is a big stepping stone and without question, I know that I will be the first Black artist singing this role at the Met. I am very blessed for doing that.

With this role, you start off with a big aria and then you have a cabaletta and by the end, you have already made a big impression. You are also leading a big chorus and that type of character fits naturally with my DNA. Then you have this self-reflective moment, which is the prayer, which is me and the cello and in many ways its kind of what he was developing for Filippo in “Ella giammai m’amo.” You can see where Verdi was headed musically as a composer.

And then again you have another choral number with the bass leading the charge. The pattern is very different from “Don Carlo” and in “Aida,” Ramfis doesn’t even have an aria. But it’s all Verdi and there is a consistency in his style of singing.

OW: You have done this production before in a smaller role. What does it feel like to go from that smaller Priest to a lead? What would you say are the major challenges of this production?

MR: Yes I did the High Priest of Baal and I was dying to do Zaccaria. I was able to work with Wendy White, Samuel Ramey, Paata Burchuladze, Maria Guleghina, Leo Nucci, and Andrea Gruber. I have done it a couple of times and I have already lost sleep over the fact that Zaccaria comes out in a platform that is two stories up because I am afraid of heights.

To do it anywhere else is like graduation and moving up. But in this production, it is like coming back home and getting a warm reception and everyone applauding you for having made it. It’s like when you grow up in a house and you come back as the boss.

OW: This will be your 19th year singing at the Met. Tell me about what it has been to sing at this house and how it has helped you develop your career. What are some of your favorite productions?

MR: When I came to the Met, I had only been singing for one and a half years. When you go to the Met as a young artist, you don’t know anything. The staff learns every bad thing about you. They train you and it’s hard for them to remove the original perception of you. So one has to go out and really prove yourself.

Having gone out to sing at other places, going back to the Met you are still just Morris Robinson. I got out of the program in 2004 and it’s taken a lot of time for them to say, “that Morris guy has really made something of himself.” I think I have finally made it and it took a lot of work and confidence to prove that you are the adult. When you come from the outside it’s different, but when you come from inside they tend to remember from when you came moreso than that which you’ve grown to become.

I love that Met “Trovatore” production because I get to start the show and set the tone off the rip. You have to run down steps and I remember that on the first opening show, I twisted my ankle and it was actually a good thing because instead of concentrating on the words, I was thinking of my ankle and how bad it hurt. And yet I did not make a single grammatical error when I sang my aria.

Being part of “Aida” as a young artist was also really wonderful because I got to be on stage with such amazing artists. I got to be on stage with Kurt Moll singing “Die Zauberflöte” and I also did the English and German version of “The Magic Flute” in the same season.

That might have been the moment that they discovered I had huge potential. And I look forward to singing there for at least 15 more years.

OW: Finally, having such a huge track record and having lived through so much thus far, how do you hope to see the industry change in the coming years?

MR: I hope the industry changes in that we see a representation in an administration that reflects that community in which they live and serve. I hope that changes what we see on stage and in the audience. No one is asking for anyone to give up a seat but we want to be able to also have an opening to take our own seat. I think diversity is a huge topic that includes so many people and I want to see this effect take place.

As for me, I want to be able to sing in different places and I want to share those roles with different theaters. I just want the opportunity and I want to have these conversations that will leave a mark and better our communities. 


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