MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And I'd like to introduce you to a man with quite a voice.

Mr. MORRIS ROBINSON (Opera Singer): My name is Morris Robinson and I'm a professional opera singer.

NORRIS: Not bad, huh? Well, you should hear him sing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

NORRIS: Morris Robinson is an opera star who's built like an offensive lineman. That's because he used to be one. Robinson was a two-time All-American at The Citadel, the military college, where Morris was nicknamed Massive. He aspired to play professional ball but was told that he was too slow.

Eventually, he found success by using one of his other massive talents: his voice, a seemingly bottomless bass. Robinson now sings with the Metropolitan Opera, where his roles have included Sarastro in "The Magic Flute" and the King of Egypt in "Aida."

Robinson first started playing and singing music at his church growing up in Atlanta. This year he's released a new CD full of his unique interpretations of the spirituals he was surrounded by in his youth. The CD is called "Going Home," and Robinson said it allowed him to do just that.

Mr. ROBINSON: I've seen Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Wolf, Schubert. You know, I do all that stuff all the time, but there's hardly ever a chance that I get a chance to do music that I grew up with and music that I can relate to. So when presented with the opportunity to record, I want to make sure that I gave back my gift to God, you know, for giving it to me, so that's how that came about.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Right from the beginning and in track one on the CD, when you listen to this and you hear this wonderful, but very jazzy arrangement, and you almost think for a minute that you might be in sort of a smoky jazz club…

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah.

NORRIS: …instead of the pews, perhaps, on Sunday morning at a church. Tell me about the arrangement. How involved were you in putting this together?

Mr. ROBINSON: I was involved with this particular one, actually, because we were kind of sitting in the studio and we went through a couple of different versions of what we were trying to get going. And the bass player hit a little lick, which is the one that you hear obviously starting things off. And (unintelligible) said look, can we hold that for a second? I said you play that, and I just started crooning to it, and Cyrus picked up on the piano and…

NORRIS: Cyrus Chestnut.

Mr. ROBINSON: Right. And the organ joined in. Before you know it, we had that groove.

(Soundbite of song "Walk with Me")

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) In my trials walk with me. In my trials walk with me.

NORRIS: There is a robust debate still to this day within the church about the blending of the spiritual and the secular and gospel music. And in many of these, really in most of the interpretations on the CD, they have a very modern, very jazzy feel.

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah.

NORRIS: Why did you decide to go in that direction?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I think that, you know, just as everything changes, you know, the opera singer traditionally the (unintelligible), the Martina Arroyos, the Kathleen Battle's, they've done spirituals and gospel music before. But, traditionally, it's been in an acoustical room with a piano, very traditionally orchestrated, very traditional sounding, you know. Now, it being a new era, felt that it was, you know, important to readdress those same songs, but address them in a more modern way.

So some of it is very traditional and standard, if you will, and some of it is very on the edge and taking a risk, I guess, to blend styles musically, but still holding the integrity of the words, the integrity of the melody, the integrity of the message. So I don't think I skewed it too much. I just thought that maybe it would be time to do something different.

(Soundbite of song "Walk with Me")

NORRIS: If I happen to ride an elevator with you or sneaked up behind you at the Starbucks, and you were at lost in thought and you were humming, is this what it actually sounds like?

Mr. ROBINSON: It will probably sound like that. It might not be as forward and present, but yeah, I do a lot of that. And, you know, when you're - I always think that when you have a song in you, when you're communicating musically, it's because you have an inner peace or inner happiness, or some feelings inside that you're kind of letting it escape that way. And that would very much be exactly what was happening then, you know, in church on Sundays.

It's always, it's always said if you hum, the devil doesn't know what you're talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: So it just gives you a chance to be even more reflective and more interpersonal, I think. And that's, you know, that's why I went there.

(Soundbite of song "Walk with Me")

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) In my trials…

NORRIS: Now tell me about the young Morris Robinson who first started playing drums with the church choir and eventually started singing. When did the voice that we hear now start to develop?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, the voice you hear now started to develop - it was actually kind of weird. My mom made me - I auditioned for a high school of performing arts. That was the feeder school from which my middle school fed into Atlanta. And I was in the band playing the baritone horn. I played the drums at church but I played the baritone horn in the band.

So I had already auditioned for the band. I went home. Told my mom. She was happy, et cetera. Then she woke me up in the middle of the night and said, are you going to sing for the chorus? I'm like, why would I want to do that, you know? She's like, well, you have this voice, you never sing and you should utilize it. You know, you should use it before God takes it away. And I'm like Mom, you know?

So she made me get out of bed about 11:00 that night, and practice the song "The Impossible Dream," and made me go to school the next day and audition for the choral director. And at the first football game, when I was in the marching band, I went to a football game and I was standing in the stands with my marching band outfit on, and my mom was all happy. And I looked at the really cool guys out there, and they're out knocking each other over and having a good time rolling around on the grass.

And I said, you know what, I really need to be out there doing that instead of in this band. So I ended up having to, ironically, quit the band, but joined the chorus full-time in order to play football.

NORRIS: So even though you sang in high school, at one point you were headed toward a life in football. That was your dream, your aspiration. How did you actually eventually wind up as an opera singer?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I went to college on a football scholarship, Citadel. An of course the Citadel is not known for its music department. We have none. But while there I founded and directed a gospel choir. And I would do things around campus, sing the national anthem, and after graduation sing at all my teammates' weddings, you know, sing the Lord's Prayer at everyone's wedding, et cetera. And people would always walk to me and say, you know, you have something in you throat.

You know, you're very gifted and talented, maybe you should consider doing this for a living. And I heard that over and over, and it wasn't until I auditioned for a chorus in D.C., the Choral Arts Society of Washington, where the choral director heard my voice and said, you should really be doing this for a living. It was at that point I started taking people seriously, because finally someone of stature, someone with credibility actually said the same things that, you know, people that were attending these weddings and church services have said to me.

(Soundbite of opera)

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

NORRIS: It's hard for almost anyone to make it in - particularly to sort of pinnacle of opera with the Met without a lot of classical training. I mean it sounds like you sort of heard a number of people say you're good enough to sing opera, and you just sort of up and decided to do this. Did you grow up listening to a lot of opera?

Mr. ROBINSON: None at all. But, you know, God blessed me with an ear. He blessed me with a certain amount of musicianship, I guess, that, you know, allowed me to just kind of adapt into this. I can hear things. I can recreate the sound. I can kind of figure out where the style is going, what the musicians is trying to do, what the orchestra is trying to do, what the composer was trying to do when he wrote certain things. It just kind of worked out for me innately. And I can't take any credit for that.

I take credit for working really hard at languages and working really hard at learning how to make the sound more refined, but I don't take any credit for the innate musicianship and musicality. God gave me that, and I'm just simply trying to run with it and do the best I can with it.

(Soundbite of song "Going Home")

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) Going home, going home. Lord, I'm going home.

NORRIS: The track "Going Home," I guess the title track on the CD, is where you can really hear your operatic training. When you were recording this song, where were you at mentally? Was your mind in the church or was it on stage at Lincoln Center?

Mr. ROBINSON: My mind was - that's a good question. My mind was halfway between Lincoln Center and halfway inside my heart, because you do realize that there are some styles blended there. I mean it starts off with me almost at a whisper.

(Soundbite of song "Going Home")

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) All the folks we once knew waiting over there.

Going from that very soft part to the first going home, I was able to blend the two worlds and just sing the song, how it came to me. When I finally let go of all of the questions about my identity, the questions about, you know, what people were thinking of my sound and just sang the song, it came out right.

(Soundbite of song, "Going Home")

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) Going home. I'm going home.

NORRIS: If you grow up in the church, particularly the African-American church, this is a song you often hear at painful moments. It's often sung at funerals.

Mr. ROBINSON: This one is, and also "His Eye is on the Sparrow," you know. And I think that's how we got to this point where it came out exactly the way I think it should have, you know. Thinking about my mother being there. Thinking about my grandparents both being over there, wherever there is, to whoever is listening. I'm thinking about my brother being there, and I'm thinking about me finally getting to go home and just the joy of that.

Although it's a sad occasion on Earth, it's quite pleasurable and something that we all look forward to. So I allowed myself to do it vocally and mentally while listening to the song.

NORRIS: That was Morris Robinson. He sings with the Metropolitan Opera. And thanks to them for the performance recordings that we heard. His new CD of gospel music is called "Going Home."

(Soundbite of song, "Going Home")

Mr. ROBINSON: (Singing) Going home, going home. Lord, I'm going home. No more trials, no more tears, no more grief to bear. All the folks we once knew waiting over there. To the light we shall go, all is peaceful there. Going home, going home. I'm going home, home, going home.

NORRIS: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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