/ Modified mar 28, 2024 10:03 a.m.

The mutual respect is there: The intersection between athletes and music

We hear from a professional opera singer who was also an All-American football player in college.

Morris Robinson and Andy Bade Opera singer Morris Robinson (right) is interviewed by AZPM's Andy Bade (left).
More than a Game

More Than a Game Season 2, Episode 4

(Download MP3)

Sports and music overlap more than you may expect, whether it's the Super Bowl Shuffle, acclaimed music producer Harvey Mason Jr.'s days on the Arizona Wildcats basketball team, or rap albums put out by NBA players. Morris Robinson lives both sides of that. He was an All-American offensive lineman at The Citadel in his college days and now is a Grammy-winning opera singer. AZPM Classical's Andy Bade spoke with him his interesting life story, how those two roles overlap, and his favorite parts of the opera that brought him to Tucson, Verdi's Requiem.

Episode Transcript:

[Music starts]

Zac Ziegler: Hey folks More Than a Game producer, Zac Ziegler here, Tony is off this week. I'm not sure why, maybe the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament so completely decimated his bracket that he's in mourning. Maybe he's actually the Tony Perkins who plays for the University of Iowa.

[TV audio] Perkins takes it himself for hoop and the foul.

ZZ: And he's home recovering from his NIT tournament loss. I get the feeling it has more to do with the fact that it's spring break for many schools in the Tucson area though. Either way, rather than take a week off, we're bringing you this kind of a bonus episode kind of a full episode with an interview that sits at a pretty unusual intersection. We've all heard of athletes dabbling in the music industry, or maybe even going a bit farther from the less than memorable, maybe too memorable Chicago Bears Super Bowl Shuffle.


To Arizona Wildcat Harvey Mason Junior's post-basketball days working on music projects, with artists ranging from Stevie Wonder to the soundtracks of movies like Sing and Pitch Perfect.


How about the intersection of football and opera though? AZPM Classical Radio Music Coordinator and afternoon host Andy Bade recently spoke with Morris Robinson, a bass who won a Grammy in 2022 for his performance on a recording of Mahler's Symphony Number Eight. But years before becoming a professional opera singer, he was an all American football player at The Citadel. We hear about both of those careers, and how he came back to singing after years of success and the corporate job. Andy takes it from here.

Morris Robinson press photo VIEW LARGER Opera singer Morris Robinson.
Lawrence Brownlee

Andy Bade: Your story is pretty well known, but there are always listeners who just are not familiar with it. So would you give us just a synopsis of how you got here.

Morris Robinson: I'll give you the short version. But I went to The High School of Performing Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, and I was in the marching band. And I got to the first game of the marching band and decided I want to be in the marching band because all the cool kids are on the football field. So I went back to the head of the school and said, If I joined a chorus full time, can I quit the band and play football. So I became a singer so I could play football, actually, that's the root of the story. My high school was pretty advanced. We did the Mozart Requiem my junior year, we did the Haydn's Creation, my senior year, I got all the bass solos for that. And when it became time to go to college, I decided to take a football scholarship instead of a music scholarship. So I end up at the Citadel, which is not known at all for his musical program because there is not one, but I was the director of the gospel choir who was also one of the captains of football team, I made All American had a really good time there playing football and getting some discipline, you know, things you need there. I graduated and went into corporate America, and at the age of 30, decide to go back into giving this thing called vocalism was shot. And I auditioned for a weekend program at the New England Conservatory of Music. And they heard me sing the national anthem and asked me to join the opera studio. I joined their opera studio, and I was doing a production of Michael Balfe's Satanella, it's an operetta. And the head of Boston University Music Opera Institute heard me and asked me if I'd consider auditioning for a program. And that's kind of how it all started.

AB: Well, there's a lot to unpack there. [both laugh] First, you know, I know growing up, I was in the band, as well, I didn't sing until I was in college. So that was a big change for me at that point, I ended up doing choral conducting. But there's often a dichotomy between the arts and sports. And it's a choice that often kids are forced into from a very early age. I'm wondering if you've ever had any thoughts about how we could make them not so competitive against each other, but maybe working in complement to one another a little better?

MR: You know, I think as the maturation process continued the dichotomy between the two kind of melded. I had great appreciation from the guys I was in locker room with, with the thing that I can do that was kind of odd in a bar trick at one point, they were fascinated by it. But going up until that point, it certainly was a dichotomy. It was certainly some a war between the two, and I represented each you know, each side. I think, in retrospect at the ripe old age, I am now that I probably excelled in sports really well because I wanted to justify my musical capabilities. And that's just me being philosophical later in the game and looking back upon my life. I love sports. I I love what it did for me. And I do think that the two aren't very far apart. If you just take a time and analyze the two, when your body is your instrument, it takes a certain amount of discipline to pull this off, you have to keep up your voice, you have to keep up your body, when you're working out, you're coaching, you know, you take voice lessons, you know, you you have the ability, when a conductor makes a suggestion to make implementation with that suggestion immediately, when a coach says the blocking scheme changes, he went from a three to a four-i technique, you still got to change, you got to change the blocking scheme, because we got to block this differently. So the ability to adapt on the fly, these things are not very far apart from one another. And, you know, as little boys, you know, the tough guys are the athletes. The natural tough guys are the singers. And you can you have to pick a side early on. And I chose to kind of walk down the middle and, and be equally good at both. And I think like I said, in retrospect, it allowed me the freedom to be good at music because I was able to be tough for those guys, too. So I don't know how you bridge that gap, though, other than pointing out the similarities in generating mutual respect, which I've found has come, like I said, with the maturation process. So

AB: Yeah, well, I think that word there, that mutual respect, that's probably the key.

MR: Well, if you look at the NBA for instance, look at Shaquille O'Neal. Look at Kobe Bryant, look at Allen Iverson, those guys all made rap albums as soon as it became millionaires as athletes, you know. And if you look at these celebrity basketball games, every r&b singer, rapper, hip hop artists, rock and roll artists, country artists, they all want to go to basketball court and play basketball with these guys. So the mutual respect is there. I don't know if it's, if it is based in adulation from the fans, or if it's based in just respect for someone that could do something that I don't do very well, but always wanted to do. So if people look at it from that perspective, I think that they aren't very far apart.

AB: You made another decision, though, as an adult that had nothing to do with either. Maybe it was just you needed to eat. But you know, you got a job that wasn't in music or in sports, and did that for a while. And then it was another major transition to leave that when you had family responsibilities. Those are big decisions.

MR: Well, there's certain about security that comes with that decision early on, you know, go into a school like the Citadel, you surrounded by people with like minded goals. And the goals are to be successful and be financially secure and to obtain the type of occupation that can provide you and your family with all the things that they need. And I was well on that path. That was kind of the blueprint that was laid out before me. No one comes from there and wants a major have a major musical career you go there you want to get in corporate America or you go into the military as an officer and you kind of establish your life there you plan in the next 20 years, work really hard, put up a nest egg retire, you know, that was kind of the blueprint. And I was following that I came right out, walked into a job with 3M. I did that job for about five or six years. And I left and went to a division of Exxon and Monsanto, selling thermal plastics. I was regional sales manager, I had a company car, expense account, you know, corporate American Express, you know, the whole thing, had a house. I was in my second house by the time I quit for singing but you know, it also, there was a point in my life, especially with a second job where I knew after singing at weddings, countless weddings and singing the national anthem at events, I knew that I felt like God put me on Earth to do something other than to sell santoprene. too Bic and to Colgate for their toothbrush handles, you know, I was not put on this Earth to just sell raw materials and make somebody else rich. And I want to find out why. And that's where this all came from.

AB: That still had to be a big step. And I sometimes wonder maybe I should be interviewing your wife. [both laugh] Because she must be a remarkable person to stand by you and support you when you had all that going for you. And then, even at best, opera is a risk because there are no guarantees. I mean, you might be good. But you got to be better than good. You're gonna make a living at it.

MR: And then you got to be lucky and chosen to

AB: Exactly

MR: She didn't just stand by my side, she kicked me out of the house. It was her. You know, because of my background, security was always very important to me. And I didn't have a kid at the time, which probably made a lot easier, but my background was solidity, security, played safe, get to the end and when you know, Her background was you should go for it. Why not? We don't have anything else going on you know, try it out. I'm here you know, so as she was always the one that kept saying, 'go for it,' you know, and then I talked to my other friends that were in corporate America walking the same path as I was walking and they were very encouraging to like, you can always come back and do this, you know, we're stuck here. Go try something else. So, me being a Citadel graduate and having this regimented mindset I had I put forth goals. I gave myself two years to not worry about the financial security, to not worry about the 401k. To not worry about, you know, building my nest egg. Two years to just try this thing out. If it doesn't work in two years, I have 100 friends that I played ball with that graduated with that will give me another job, I can pop back in there and, you know, middle management and become a VP after about five or six years. And, you know, at least I tried, you know, but I never looked back. I gave myself two years. And within probably two months, I was already singing the King in Aida at Boston Lyric Opera. So that isn't a testament to how great I am. I think it's more of a testament to God lighting a path for you, you taking a step and he's saying, See, I told you just stay with us. So and even times now, you know, I've been all over the world and sung everywhere, you know, there still is no security in this job, there still are no guarantees. But you don't. You don't get to this point and get left, you know, by the world and by, by the person God that brought you here. So you know, there's always some solace in knowing that in the back of my mind is something I can always count on. And the next opportunity will present itself. So yeah

AB: Speaking of the music industry and opera in particular, we've come a long way from the racist tropes of roles like Monostatos in Mozart's The Magic Flute, but classical music performers, composers of color are still the exception, not the rule. From your perspective, where are we now? And what needs to happen for the industry to continue to make progress?

MR: You know, I think we're better than we were 10, 15, even five, three years ago, a lot more attention has been focused on diversity and inclusion, even though state laws and sometimes even national laws, I think are creeping in to eradicate that. In the arts. I think that, you know, we have to look at how much we've missed out on over the past century or so, when we have, you know, ostracized certain people from the business, you know, black folks are artistic, you know, we're creative, we're musical, you know, we've been that. But we've also been shut out of certain genres so we weren't able to display that talent. You know, we are down and we're here. And a lot of focus has been on telling black stories and having black composers in black librettists and black directors and black conductors to implement that aspect of it. I fear that we're going to create separate but equal repertoire, which I don't want to do. I just like to expand the repertoire. You know, I've been very fortunate that ironically, as it may be, I don't get asked to sing black roles often. I get asked to sing German and Italian repertoire, which is fine. That's what my voice is very well suited for and that's what I worked hard for. But I'm just happy that the conversation is happening, the awareness is there. And companies are making an effort to ameliorate a problem that has been in existence since the conception of this art form. Two of the companies that I represent, Atlanta Opera has a 96 hour opera project, where we are out in the community soliciting composers and creators to put together very rapidly in order to address the pipeline issue, a small operetta that will get a grant that will get a debut. Cincinnati Opera, we just got the big million grant, you know, and a lot of money to put on three operas. Black composers, black librettist, black stories told in a positive manner. And we're excited about that. The first of which will be debuting in 2025. So lots of work lots of attention, I've been very much a part of that. Just pushing the issue and, and making it known that this is an important aspect of our business that has been ignored. And we need to nurture it and feed it. So I think we're in a better position. I've been around for a long time. So if there's anything I can leave behind in this business, it would be I would like to leave behind the legacy that this guy stood up, you know, and sometimes spoke in manners that may not have worked to help me personally in this career, but to help people that come after me, because I've rubbed feathers the wrong way too. But, you know, I think that the most important thing is needs to be done and to whom much is given, much is required. So I don't mind standing up and being the voice that does these things. So

AB: You're in Tucson to sing Verdi's Requiem. That's a great piece. What to you makes this Requiem unique?

MR: You know, and this is, I won't say it's a colloquialism. But I will certainly say that this is a tried and true analogy when it comes to this piece. This is the one opera that he wrote that didn't have staging, right? It's, you know, there's, I was doing the ending of it and for the DeLuca Terna and it has a part where you go [singing in Italian] The whole thing, right? And right in the middle of it, instinctively I just went [singing in Italian] because it's like the same type of tomb atmosphere that, you know, this is a dark side. So yeah, it just, you know, Verdi wrote this opera, this oratorio and it's just so powerful, it has drama it has, you know, all the things that you want in opera, all the things that you want in music, it's all there, you know, and it's, you know, it's a wonderful, powerful piece. I was watching the bass drama at the beginning of the Dies Irae yesterday, which is one of my favorite things to watch. And I just don't like it when they're not whacking that theme to kingdom coming. He's, I mean, he's given it all these guys don't like, yeah, you know, so, you know, if you, if you like drama, if you like excitement, if you like music, if you like, the human voice and see what they're capable of doing at every range, you know, from top to bottom, you know, we have a great cast, the chorus sounds great, the orchestra sounds amazing, the conductor knows it. It's just an exciting event to be a part of, you know, and I catch myself all the time mouthing the words of the course even when I'm not seeing

AB: Yeah, it's got every every emotion and every, everything you would ever forever expect from the opera from the tenderness to the fear and the terror. Just everything was there. And you know, it starts out very soft, and then you go into this Dies Irae just the hair off your head. And then it ends very, very softly to I was thinking of it this morning, I get up my score. And I was looking at it. And I was like, you know, this reminds me of the story of Elijah.

MR: Oh, wow.

AB: Because you had the whirlwind and all drama. And at the end, God was in the still small voice at the very end. And that that kind of thought just came to me there because this is sacred drama at every aspect. And yet, at the end, you bring it back to this still small voice.

MR: You know, my debut was in this exact same piece of this exact same symphony was a 2013, 14. So I'm happy to be back.

AB: Is there any particular part in it that you particularly as a vocalist, just really love?

MR: You know, it's the first sort of oratorial piece I learned while I was studying. And yeah, so what do I love? You mean, the moments I am singing are the moments of Mad singing

AB: Both

MR: Because there's so much you know, I love the Mors stupebit because it pops up right in the middle of that Dies Irae. And I get the walk, you know, I, I stand at the climax of the cutting off. And you hear [makes sounds]. It's kind of like the Grand Inquisitor is entering the room, you know that. I mean, he's that kind of spooky type feeling. So I love that part. And I get to end on the [sings in Italian] with a high E, you know, and then the trombones, it's just great. That's like a moment. But immediately after that the Liber Scriptus starts. And I'm just like, caught up in that moment with the Mezzo. The Ingemisco, I love to just sit in and groove in that moment, keeping in mind that immediately afterwards, I have the Confutatis maledictis. So it's Yeah, I mean, I can name every moment in this thing that touches me. But you know, it's always highlighted by the fact that, Oh, you got to go on right after this so you can't get caught up in what he's doing. You have to think about delivering what you have to deliver. Two other points, I mentioned the the requiem at the end, but the end of my aria at the end of the Confutatis Maledictis is the reintroduction of the cataclysmic you know, the, the bass rom the the Dies Irae comes back. So I love that part, [Italian] bom, bom, bom. That's just I got chills right now, because I live for that moment. Not just because I'm coming off the high E, but because it's a great moment.

AB: Yeah, and it seems to me that, you know, every great opera, just like every great piece of sacred music too in some way really speaks to us as human beings at a core of who we are and what we are. And, you know, this one seems to speak to so many different levels of our existence of our being.

MR: And the ending of such, right.

AB: Absolutely. And the ending, which gives you in mind, although even with that ending that Libra rom a that's that's hope.

MR: It ends with hope, yeah. And I was giving the soprano a hard time yesterday because she gets to sit there and watch us all just go at it for two hours. But then the last 20 minutes is all on her, you know? By the end, I'm wiping my brow, I put my score up and it's like, okay, entertain me now because it's gonna be great. So, you know, it's a great piece spiritually, emotionally, vocally, musically. It's just very, very refreshing to be able to come back and revisit this piece again. So I'm honored to be here.

AB: Well, we're honored to have you here. Morris Robinson. Thank you for sharing your time today and your artistic gifts with us here in Tucson.

MR: Well, thank you for having me.

ZZ: That was AZPM's, Andy Bade talking with Morris Robinson,. You can catch more of Andy's interviews at azpm.org under Classical Extempore.

And that's it for this episode of More Than a Game. Join us next time as Tony maybe returns after cleaning out his locker and Iowa City, and we hear about fan travel to sporting events and baseball played by its original rules.

This show is produced by me, Zac Ziegler with mixing help this week from Annalise Wiley. Our News Director is Christopher Conover. Our logo is designed by AC Swedbergh. Thanks to our marketing team for their help and launching this podcast. This show is a part of the AZPM podcast family. You can find all of our podcasts, news, and video productions at Azpm.org.

I'm Zac Ziegler returning to my spot behind the scenes. We'll see you next week.

Nicole Cox: AZPM podcasts are made possible in part by donations from listeners like you. Learn more at support.azpm.org Thank you.

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