WETA Classical is proud to be a media sponsor of Morris & Friends: An Evening of Opera & Gospel. The Takoma Park Seventh Day Adventist Church will be the venue for this special concert on Saturday, February 3 at 8pm. This is an event in the Anna H. Wang Concert Series, and is presented in partnership with Washington Adventist University and the Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts (CAAPA). Choral conductor, singer and music journalist Patrick D. McCoy (who recently wrote for Classical Score) will join me at 7pm for a pre-concert dialogue, and he will be the emcee for the concert.

I had a chance to connect with Morris Robinson, who is an organizing force in this event and whose exceptional talents will be featured in the concert.

Evan Keely: This fascinating program has me thinking about the whole concept of genre. We humans seem to have an irrepressible urge to categorize things. That can be good: it can help us make sense of things; it can aid us in comparing and contrasting; it can guide us in understanding the relationships between things and persons and movements. But we also know that this urge to categorize has been and is being used, at times, to divide and to diminish and to demean. So it’s fraught, it’s complicated. 

I work for a radio station called “WETA Classical”. I’ve been immersed in this thing called “classical music” nearly as long as I can remember. Yet I have never once heard a convincing definition of “classical music”. On our two stations, WETA Classical and WETA VivaLaVoce, we play a wide variety of music, from Anonymous 4 performing chants by twelfth-century composer Hildegard von Bingen, to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra playing Gustav Mahler. What is this genre? And what isn’t it?

All that being said, we could make the case that this remarkable and rather unusual concert program features the juxtaposition of two musical genres: classical/opera and gospel. But even there we can run into trouble. The opera portion of the evening includes two works by German composers, written a little over a century apart: the famous “Ombra mai fu” from George Frideric Handel’s Serse, and “Mögst du, mein Kind” from Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Genre-wise, they’re both “opera,” they’re both “classical”. Yet they’re so different! I’m not sure that “Ombra mai fu” doesn’t have more in common with Michael McKay’s “Corinthian Song” stylistically than with, say, Donizetti’s “Regnava nel silenzio”.

How do you make sense of this whole question of genre, especially as it pertains to opera and gospel? How do we bring these things together? Is this concert program a celebration of things placed side by side deliberately to show how different they are from one another? Is it a “compare and contrast” experience in which we find joy in the similarities as well as the differences? 


Morris Robinson: In terms of Genre, these two are very different. Opera is basically for entertainment whilst Gospel music is for Spiritual Uplift and to offer praise to God. If we were to focus solely on the spiritual uplift element, if one is willing to tackle this question from this particular angle, an argument can be made that the two could be related from the perspective of a dotted line. Opera has many effects on human emotions and psyche. Many times, someone leaves the theatre feeling uplifted from the spiritual attributes of music as a whole. There have been scientific studies on how music, classical music in particular, has healing qualities for the human body both physically and psychologically. The concept of this concert, however, is based on a more pragmatic and sentimental way of connecting the past and present.

EK: What’s the vision behind this concert? Is there an agenda? Was this prompted in part by a desire to bring enthusiasts of these different styles together? Personally, I would love it if more opera fans would become closely acquainted with gospel music, just as I’d rejoice if hip-hop aficionados and sarod players would hang out and share music together, or if Mongol-Tuvan throat singers would get closer with bossa nova musicians. How do we foster more of these kinds of cross-pollinations and syncretistic encounters?

MR: The vision of this concert started when Tracy Wilson (Cincinnati Opera) watched a video that I posted on Facebook, of me and a bunch of classical musicians having a gospel Jam Session in my Piano Room at my home in Tyrone, Georgia.

Most of us, in fact every Black Opera Singer I know, had a start in the Church. For many of us, our first “audience” was the church congregation, and our first Maestro was the choir director. My choir director in church, at my very first rehearsal, walked over to me, (I was 9 years old), looked me in my eyes very sternly, and said, “Keep your eyes on me, and never take them off of me. If you do THAT, you will never go wrong!” This is a concept that I take with me to this very day, as most conductors will attest to the fact that Morris Robinson is ALWAYS in sync with the Maestro. This story, or stories like this are very common.

This concept of the program is indeed a deliberate choice to place the genres side by side in a sense. However, the aim is not to display the differences. To the contrary, the aim of this program is to take us back to our “roots” as it were, and connect us to that from whence we have all come. I believe it is entertaining yet informative. Yes, we are all internationally acclaimed Classical Artists. Yes, we will display our virtuosic capabilities by performing classical music, in several contrasting styles and languages, in the first half of the concert. However, we will then take it “Back to Church” and show the audience that we are still connected to our roots. What is more, however, we will offer praise unto God, who blessed us with the musical capabilities to perform at high levels on international stages.

In as much as this is a musical display, it is also a way to reconnect and give “Thanks” to God for his many blessings.

Other notes to ponder:

Our community has always had an immense versatility in music. Gospel Music is representative of several varying styles. On any given Sunday, one might hear music which has remnants of Traditional Classical Music to Bossa Nova to Waltz to Coloratura, patter, Recitative, Jazz, Funk, Disco, House, etc.

From a technical perspective, some of us will oscillate between producing sound as Classically trained Musicians, while others will go in and out of “chest” voice.

There is also a VERY Spiritual element to the second half, which will undoubtedly go off script. There will most likely be some shouting and praise. Many of us will jump on instruments (I will play the drums, some will play piano, tambourine, Organ, Bass, etc.).

In summary, the first half will be classical and the second half, we will “Go to Church!”

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