Basses discuss being Black opera singers

In this Wednesday, April 8, 2015 photo, Eric Owens, left, and Morris Robinson perform during a rehearsal of the opera "Don Carlo," at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Five performances are scheduled to be staged from April 24 to May 3. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
In this Wednesday, April 8, 2015 photo, Eric Owens, left, and Morris Robinson perform during a rehearsal of the opera “Don Carlo,” at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Five performances are scheduled to be staged from April 24 to May 3. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

When King Philip II of Spain faces off against the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at the Academy of Music, they won’t just be portraying history, they’ll be making a bit of it, too. In what’s believed to be a first, a major opera company has cast two African-Americans in the roles.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens as the king headlines the cast of Opera Philadelphia’s new production, which runs for five performances starting Friday night, while bass Morris Robinson sings the smaller but crucial role of the Inquisitor. Their highly charged encounter, which lasts just under 10 minutes, is one of the great scenes in opera — and one of the few written for two deep male voices.

Both men are in their 40s and at somewhat different stages in their careers. Owens, who grew up in Philadelphia, studied singing at Temple University and the Curtis Institute, developing a voice that allows him to excel in baritone parts as well as lower bass roles. Robinson, who grew up in Atlanta, attended The Citadel on a football scholarship (he was an all-American offensive lineman) and didn’t begin studying singing until he was 30, when his deep, booming bass voice caught the attention of teachers at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Recently the two men talked with The Associated Press about their careers, working together and the challenges of being a Black opera singer.

AP: How did you become interested in opera?

Owens: I’ve been an opera lover since I was 8 years old. Classical music just took hold of me early on, before I had any designs on singing. I was there waiting for the Saturday-afternoon radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera to come on.

Robinson: (Laughing.) You really ARE a nerd, aren’t you? Around the same time Eric was listening to those broadcasts, my only exposure to opera was Bugs Bunny and ‘Kill the Wabbit.’ I spent my time trying to get all the recordings I could of The Sugarhill Gang. Classical music didn’t start getting to me until high school. I realized I couldn’t play in the band and be on the football team, so I quit the band and joined the chorus.

AP: How does it feel to be singing these particular roles at this point in your careers?

Owens: It feels good. I mean there’s something with Verdi where things just click in to where they’re supposed to be. If the technique is not just like a nuclear reactor, just going, going, going, Verdi will kick your butt real bad. You sing any one of these arias and you feel like you’ve done 100 sit-ups.

Robinson: You can’t fake your way through it. The Grand Inquisitor covers everything that’s expected of a bass to be able to sing, from a low E to a high F, it’s there, and it takes a lot of sustained legato lines. Eric just gets through singing his aria and he’s downtrodden and then I come in (Owens, interrupting: ‘All fresh!’) and I tell the king what to do. I got to use my puppet strings to control him. And when you’ve got a guy like this singing in front of you, you’ve got to reach deeper and bring something a little bit more.

AP: As far as anyone seems to know, this is the first time these roles have both been cast with Black singers. Archivists at the Metropolitan Opera and Opera America said they could find no examples of it happening. Do you feel this is any kind of a milestone?

Robinson: It may very well be coincidental, but I don’t think it’s insignificant. I’m just finishing a ‘Magic Flute’ in Houston where we had a Black Pamina (Nicole Heaston), a Black Papageno (Michael Sumuel) and a Black Sarastro (Robinson), so that was monumental. I don’t know if this is the turning of the tide, but I think it speaks highly that it didn’t serve as a deterrent for them to hire us.

Owens: First and foremost, I think Opera Philly hired us because the dynamic of our voices complement each other and fits these roles quite well. And us being African-American, that’s just, I don’t want to say collateral damage, but it’s gravy.

AP: Do you see yourselves as role models for aspiring Black singers?

Robinson: I think we give hope to a lot of cats who are in school studying, who look like us and pursue this career and don’t see very many examples.

Owens: It was a big deal for me when I was coming up and I saw people of color. What’s cool about this event is that we do spend an awful lot of time being the only black person in a room, in a company, in a town sometimes. Awhile back, during all the Trayvon Martin stuff, I was in Switzerland with the Berlin Philharmonic. I walked into the hall for the concert and it suddenly hit me, I’m the only Black person in this room. And I hadn’t really given it much thought over the course of 20 years. And I wondered to myself: How would a White person feel being the only White person around constantly in their careers?



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