When Morris Robinson sings, his powerful, velvety bass can shake the floorboards. But last month, Robinson made a statement that resonated even more powerfully. At a panel discussion on Black opera singers’ experiences convened by the LA Opera and hosted by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, Robinson stated that in his 20-year career, he’d never been hired, conducted or directed by a Black person. The comment quickly went viral.
“It became famous because a lot of companies heard it and said, ‘Holy shit, he’s right,” Robinson says, speaking via Zoom from his home in Atlanta.
Since his debut with Boston Lyric Opera in 1999, Robinson has performed with major companies and orchestras in the United States and Europe and made his debut at La Scala in Milan in 2016. He’s appeared frequently with the Cincinnati Opera and sang the role of Porgy in Porgy and Bess here last summer.
But performing in prestigious venues to critical acclaim doesn’t dispel the constant burden of navigating the world while Black. Robinson takes an active role in addressing the inequities in the opera and Classical music worlds, and for the past three years, he has done that as Cincinnati Opera’s Artistic Advisor.
The position was created by the company’s former general manager Patty Beggs, a passionate advocate for community engagement. Robinson serves as a company representative, a regular participant in Opera Goes to Church and in many other community programs.
“Before COVID, I was out in the community, giving master classes, speaking at churches and community centers, and listening to folks’ comments,” Robinson says.
He also participates in artistic advisory committee meetings, offering perspectives on productions, titles and especially artists of color.
“Morris alerts us to young singers who may not even have management,” Cincinnati Opera’s artistic director Evans Mirageas wrote in an email. “Many of them have appeared in recent seasons.”
But Robinson notes that many opera companies use Black singers as a band-aid to cover up deeper racial disparities.
“The real work is a top-down business. We need singers on the stage, but we also need people in the offices and the audiences,” he says. “It’s about our lives mattering. It’s about our representation mattering. It’s about getting a fair shot.”
Robinson names several Black conductors with impressive credentials who get overlooked for opera gigs. When it comes to filling administrative posts, Robinson says that companies need to think outside of the box.
“When I hear people say there are no Black people in the pool, my response is maybe we need to try other pools,” he says. “Why can’t we go to the top business schools and say we’re recruiting some of the top minds in business to come here?”
Greater representation must extend to board membership and donors, and is crucial to uprooting racist mindsets, an issue made painfully clear in the same panel discussion.
Tenor Russell Thomas recounted an incident at a 2015 Cincinnati Opera donor event where a white donor made a racist comment directed at him and Robinson.
The incident also went viral, including a mention in The New York Times. Cincinnati Opera officials, previously unaware of the event, posted a statement on the company’s website, saying, in part: “Racism has no place at Cincinnati Opera, and we are grateful to these artists for their honesty and willingness to share their experiences. Cincinnati Opera strives to be a place where diverse perspectives are celebrated—from the boardroom to the stage. We also know we have more to do to make this possible. We look forward to continuing our collaborations with artists, creators, and partners from communities of color and to advancing our work toward becoming a more inclusive, more representative, and actively anti-racist organization.”
“My agent asked me why I didn’t tell her about this and I told her that it happens more often than not,” Robinson says.
Robinson calls this the dual existence Black Americans navigate daily. “Even at this point in my career, I’m still aware that I’m a 6-foot-3, 290-pound Black man and if I’m talking to a white colleague in a corner, I need to turn my body out so that everyone can see what I’m doing,” he says. “It’s part of the paranoia that Black people carry with them. And then we still have to go out and perform.”
Robinson’s opera career began when he was 30, although he sang in his father’s church and in Atlanta’s performing arts high school’s choruses. He played football for The Citadel and anticipated a career in the pros.
That didn’t happen but Robinson determined that “if I was ever again in a position to do something great, I was going to be great at it.”
He pivoted, starting a career in the tech industry as a sales manager. He sang with the Choral Arts Society of Washington and in 1999, he was recruited by Boston University’s Opera Institute.
He worked with vocal and diction coaches to prepare to audition for one of 12 slots. He was accepted and gave up a high-paying job with benefits, including a company car. Within a year, he made his professional debut as the King in Verdi’s Aida.
It was the first opera he ever saw.
Robinson debuted with Cincinnati Opera in 2009, singing the ominous Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s Don Carlo. The following year, he made a brilliant 180 and stole the show as the slyly comic Night Watchman in Wagner’s five-hour epic Die Meistersinger.
He was scheduled to be part of Cincinnati Opera’s centennial season, singing Ramfis in Aida. But despite cancellations, Robinson is busier than ever.
He performed as part of Nicole Heaston’s Purple Robe Song Series and most recently with the Motherless Child/8:46 Project, both of which can be seen on Facebook.
Within days of George Floyd’s murder in late May, Robinson was barraged with calls and emails from arts organizations requesting assistance in crafting position statements and how to create an inclusive organization. And he’s enrolled in Cornell University’s Diversity and Inclusion certificate program.
“I always thought I’d end up in academics, but it looks like I’ll go into administration,” says Robinson. “Right now, I just want to sing.”
Robinson will continue as Cincinnati Opera’s Artistic Advisor, “funding allowing,” says Mirageas. It is a position that takes on urgency as arts institutions confront a lack of representation that extends from presenters to board members and donors.
When I ask Robinson for his response to postings of support from corporations and nonprofits including arts organizations, he smiles ruefully.
“We’re pessimistically optimistic because we ask ourselves how long this momentum will last,” Robinson says. “We just want to be represented, across the board.”