“Ol' Man River” is arguably the most recognizable tune in all of Show Boat. What’s it like to interpret a song that the entire audience likely knows and has heard their entire life?
Well, honestly, as a Bass it's quite rare to have the "hit tune" as a responsibility. With that responsibility comes a tremendous amount of pressure to deliver the goods. I liken it to the pressure of singing "Nessun Dorma" in Turandot
or "Celeste Aida" in Aida
, "Pace Pace mio Dio" from Forza
or "Der Holle Rache" from Die Zauberflote
. People know it's coming and everyone has an ear for their FAVORITE interpretation of the piece. I can't compete with those preferences (Robeson, Warfield etc.), so I just try to be honest and in the moment. Certain nights may be different vocally because things change according to how one is feeling physically etc. But an honest offering, full of emotion and connection to the music and lyrics is the best one can give. Astute audiences pick up on that, and they are usually quite appreciative.
Morris Robinson as Joe in Show Boat. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The last time you were at San Francisco Opera, you were singing The Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and wearing a powdered wig. This certainly is a departure from that! What are the differences for you singing a work of musical theater as opposed to standard opera fare?
I've never been a 17th century nobleman as was the Commendatore in our production last time here, but I try to project myself into that frame of mind by channeling my own experiences in an effort to bring truth to the characterization. I do the same with Joe. I feel that based on my ethnic heritage and familiarity, theoretically, with what Joe sings about in this show, I can relate more to him. From a technical standpoint, I sing "Ol' Man a River" as I would sing "In Diesen Heilgen Hallen." I'm always thinking legato and support throughout the musical line with well-thought phrasing etc. I choose not to 'croon' as some have in the past because Show Boat was written during a period when amplification was not utilized. Singers actually had to project and support in order to be heard throughout the theatrer. I consider myself a very technical person vocally, so I really try to bring the same approach to this musical style as I would if I were singing Italian or German repertoire.
You’ve sung the role of Joe in all previous performances of Francesca Zambello’s Show Boat. What is it like to revisit a role that has become very familiar and yet to perform it in a new venue and with new cast members?
Morris Robinson with Angela Renee Simpson, who plays his wife Queenie
in Show Boat. Photo by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago
It's amazing to "mix it up" and adapt your characterization into a new group. Every stop of "The Boat" thus far has brought together different personnel, personalities and chemistry. I've loved this experience, not only because I have to adjust to the varying artistic interpretations of different artists, but also because I have to re-address Joe each and every time. I've grown as an artist since the initial run, and I believe that Joe has grown with me, as I've learned more and developed my understanding of him more. Francesca is great at delving deep into the characters ... Not specifically as individuals, but how each character relates to the others on the Boat. We often have group readings, whether we have lines or not, where all the artists are present. This enables us to discuss openly our interpretation of the intent of the librettist, while simultaneously developing an understanding of how these characters relate to one another contemporaneously based on our OWN interpretation and understanding. These types of sessions, coupled with my growth and development as an artist have allowed me to add more dimensions to Joe every time the show has been remounted.
Race relations play an important role in Show Boat. What message do you hope audiences will take away from these performances?
I think it's very easy for us to want to forget the past and assume that everything is fine in our contemporary society. This show illuminates the racial issues from the era in which it was conceived and written. However, whether it be race, gender or sexual orientation, we still deal with very similar issues today. Perhaps, seeing an example of past problems will allow us to draw parallels regarding issues of today. We can learn from past mistakes. That, in my opinion, is one of the basic fundamentals of, and initiators for change.
We hear that you are traveling with your son and that he will also be participating in Show Boat as a supernumerary. How fun! Have you shared the stage with him before and does he enjoy the unique life travelling with an opera-singing dad?
Morris Robinson with chorus members in Show Boat.
Photo by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
This is indeed a wonderful experience. As a traveling singer, my time with Miles is quite limited. He does come to visit me sometimes, but with school, basketball, swimming, karate, piano lessons and baseball, his plate is quite full. We have never been on stage together. In fact, Miles has never been on stage at all. When approached with this opportunity, he only agreed to participate as long as he didn't have to SING in front of "all those PEOPLE!" I told him not to worry. "Daddy will handle that part!" Miles is having a blast, as am I. This is a "once in a lifetime" opportunity, and I'm so grateful that San Francisco Opera has made this happen.