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Celebrated bass Robinson brings introspective side to Tucson's Desert Song Festival

Celebrated bass Robinson brings introspective side to Tucson's Desert Song Festival

Morris Robinson

As an opera singer with 150-plus appearances at the storied Metropolitan Opera, Morris Robinson doesn’t get to sing Aaron Copland very often.

Which is why the celebrated bass singer said he’s thrilled to be joining True Concord Voices & Orchestra Jan. 24-26 in a program rich in Copland, Gershwin and other American composers.

“Most of the times I’m singing music that was written by somebody who isn’t from here and in another language,” he said during a phone call last week. “I’m just happy to be doing this program. I love Copland’s songs and I don’t get to sing his stuff very often so I’m very excited about that. But we’re also mixing it in with some African American spirituals, some show tunes. … We’re covering this segment of our musical history and I am very happy to be a part of it.”

“America Sings!” is part of the eighth annual Tucson Desert Song Festival and fits in with the event’s “American Voice” theme. It also fits Robinson’s definition of the American voice, which he said is a lot like America itself — a rich melting pot of ideas and experiences that define us.

“We have so many different things that are a part of us,” said the 50-year-old father of one. “My background obviously is Southern black gospel spirituals that are derived from times before the turn of the century when slavery was there and we were communicating tangentially with songs that meant something else.”

His True Concord program has several of those songs including “Old Man River” from the Jerome Kern musical “Show Boat” and the spiritual “Deep River” alongside Copland’s “Long Time Ago” and “Simple Gifts;” a trio of Stephen Foster songs including “Oh! Susanna” and “Nelly Bly;” and Gershwin’s “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess,” an opera that he has performed a number of times and will do again in March with his hometown company The Atlanta Opera.

This will be Robinson’s second Tucson Desert Song Festival. He was here for the inaugural event in 2013, performing Verdi’s Requiem with Tucson Symphony Orchestra. Song festival coordinator George Hanson , the TSO’s music director, was at the podium.

Robinson’s True Concord appearance also marks his third time in Tucson.

The first was back in the 1990s in another lifetime, when Robinson, an All-American linebacker at the Citadel in the late 1980s, was knee deep in the corporate world and singing on major opera stages was nowhere in his future.

Robinson, who sang when called upon for community events and at friends’ weddings, came into music just before he turned 30 and enrolled in continuing education classes at the New England Conservatory of Music in the late 1990s. He caught the attention of Boston University’s Opera Institute, which offered him a full ride to study voice in 1999. Within months, he was tapped for his first role as the King in “Aida” with Boston Lyric Opera. Three years later, he made his Met debut as a member of the Met’s prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

He hasn’t slowed since.

“I have 150, 160 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, 30 or 40 at Carnegie Hall. I’ve sung at La Scala. I’ve sung at San Francisco,” Robinson recounted when asked about not having a conservatory background. “I think it has its place and I think if I had been there instead of where I was … I would not be as green as I was coming into it. But I think having the experiences that I did in my life shaped me for what I walked into. I had the intestinal fortitude. I had the stick-to-itness. I had the discipline. I had the mental toughness, which a lot of people who go to conservatory don’t have.”

He also has the voice, a big, booming, rich, resonating and deeply moving voice that Opera News called “a big, burly bass, a kind of natural wonder” and his hometown Atlanta Constitution called “a miracle voice of endless potential.”

“I love to sing. I love to do my job. And every instance requires something different of me as an artist,” said Robinson, the son of an Atlanta preacher who will be in the audience in March for that “Porgy and Bess” performance. “So when I’m singing Mahler (Eighth Symphony in the UK) literally a couple days before I come to Tucson, I’m going to be a different Morris Robinson. I’m going to be singing with a huge orchestra behind me and I’m going to be going all in, just cranking out the volume ... . When I’m in Arizona, I’m going to be a whole different Morris Robinson. I get to come off the voice. I get to be sweet. I get to be introspective. I get to explore different aspects of my voice that I don’t normally get to do. It’s going to be fun.”

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch

Cathalena has covered music for the Star for the past 20 years. She's a graduate of Arizona State University has worked at Sedona Red Rock News, Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, New York; and USA Today.

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