Gail Robinson and soprano Patricia Andress, who is pursuing her doctorate at UK, work on some vocal exercises.
Noteworthy Prima Donna Enjoying New Role at UK
Unassuming. That's the only word that can describe my first impression of Gail Robinson. And it's not one you'd necessarily associate with someone who's lived the life of a prima donna. Or someone who has a framed cover of the Italian magazine La Follia, featuring Pavarotti and herself on stage, on the piano in her office.
But that unlikely word is the best way to describe this woman who came to the University of Kentucky as an endowed chair in voice after two decades as a world-renowned soprano and 12 years as an administrator committed to educating and elevating young singers at America's most prestigious name in opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
She mentions, almost in passing, that she sang at the White House for the Nixons and President Tito and at the palace in Monte Carlo; she seems a little awestruck herself at the "wonderful things" she has experienced because of opera.
The Jackson, Tennessee, native has an intermittent stutter, most often on words beginning with "m," "n," and "s," but it's something that never hindered her singing. "I've had it all my life. I'm so grateful to have been able to express myself in song, because I get so hung-up in speech sometimes," she says, the frustration evident in her voice.
And then there's the rheumatoid arthritis. Looking down at the tell-tale swollen knuckles, she explains why she had to stop performing. "I've had arthritis since I was 19had it my entire singing careerbut it just got to the point that trying to do staged opera was so physically demanding that it took the joy out of singing.
"I said to my husband the other day, if God would come to me and say, 'I gave you too much, so I'll take back either the stammer or the arthritis.' I'd say to him, 'Take the stammer.' I can deal with the pain. I just would love to be able to express myself eloquently all the time."
Robinson found her voice early; she sang in the church choir, for civic events and talent shows, but had no background in opera at all. She thought she'd study piano, but ended up enrolling as a voice major at Memphis State University and was cast in her first opera, "Cosi Fan Tutte," at age 19.
Robinson and Richard Stillwell perform in a 1978 Canadian television movie of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville."
"And my teacher entered me in the Met auditions [which require singers to be between 19 and 33] in Memphis for the experience of singing on a stage in front of an audience and receiving critical feedback from a judge. And I wonthat was very unexpectedand it brought me the opportunity to go to the big city. It was my first plane trip."
Dressed in a turquoise chiffon gown and shoes dyed to match, Robinson sang on the stage of the Met in the spring of 1966. "I was so naïve. I didn't know how important it was or that I was supposed to be terrified. I just had a wonderful time. It was a fairytale experience." She won in the finals and was invited to be part of the Met Studio, known now as the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, which is still the preeminent training program in the country. "I was in the program for three years, and then I was asked to join the parent company and stayed for 20 years as a singer."
Famous tenor Luciano Pavarotti and Robinson grace the cover of the Italian magazine La Follia in 1980.
Robinson's first real splash came in Detroit, and it was "a star is born" kind of thingin fact, that was the headline over her photo on the front page of the Detroit Free Press. "The Met was on tour, and I was the understudy for Roberta Peters, who was scheduled to sing the title role in 'Lucia di Lammermoor.'" This opera, based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott and sung in Italian, is perhaps the one most associated with Robinson. "It's got a mad scene that goes on for 20 minutes and ends on a high E-flat," she says. "I was so prepared. We started out in Boston and went to D.C., Atlanta, Cleveland, and we got to the final stop of the tour in Detroit and I thought, 'Well, it's just not going to happen.' And then Roberta got sick. I stepped in on a day's notice, and it was really a Cinderella story. Placido Domingo was the tenor that night."
Domingo, who has earned fame as a singer, conductor, and artistic director to the Washington and Los Angeles operas, had a hand in introducing Robinson to her future husband Henno Lohmeyer. "He was a television producer in Germany," she says. "He was doing an hour-and-a-half opera special and hired me on Placido Domingo's recommendation." Lohmeyer and Robinson eventually married and lived in Germany for five years.
"After our second child was born, he decided he wanted the children to be educated in America, and we came back here," she says. The family settled in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Robinson cut back on her traveling, working mostly at the Met, with the exception of the occasional recital or symphony. "I really wanted to be there for my children. My husband is an extraordinary father, and we always had a nanny so I knew the children were having a great time when I was gone," she says. "I was the one sitting in my hotel room, crying into my room-order soup."
Of all the roles she played over the years, Robinson most cherishes the one she portrayed in the opera of the children's classic "Hansel and Gretel." "Singing Gretel was just one of the most fabulous experiences because I had two small children and it brought them so much joy," she says. "Ocean Spray cranberry juice had a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, 'The Metropolitan Opera's Hansel and Gretel,' so I got to be Gretel on a freezing cold morning; but it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences."
Robinson's publicity photo for the Metropolitan Opera's 1985 production of "Hansel and Gretel"
Another memory of performing as Gretel brings more pain than pleasure. "There was a tremendous amount of dancing, jumping and climbing up in a hayloft onstage. It was the most physically demanding part I ever sang. I broke my foot during a performance; about 10 minutes from the end of the opera, I heard it snap. There were 4,000 people there, and you haven't even pushed the witch in the oven, so you don't have a choice, you've got to keep going," she says.
"It was funny because my doctor happened to be in the audience that night; he brought his three children. They came backstage afterward and I was propped up against the door signing autographs for a long line of people. I called him over and said, 'I think I've broken my foot.' His expression clearly read, 'These melodramatic sopranos.' We went to the hospital, but I felt that I was just being humored. He came in the door with the X-rays (I'll never forget his face) and he said, 'You've broken your foot!'"
When Robinson decided to retire from singing, the Met asked her to be a part of the administration. She became executive director of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions ("the same program that started me into singing") and the director of the Young Artist Program. "So I found myself sitting in the chair giving advice to young singers," Robinson says. "The chair I had come to so often to seek advice. It gave me a unique perspective on those jobs, because I had been through both of those programs. It was not possible for a singer to sit across from me and say, 'But you don't understand....' Because I did.
"If you go through the names of the top American singers, almost all of them have been identified through the National Council Auditions," she says. These auditions, first held in 1952 to identify and nurture young talent, bring the 17 district finalists (selected from a pool of 2,000 singers from all over the country) to the Met, where they spend 10 days being coached, going to operas, going backstage to talk to singers and conductors, and then ultimately singing on the Met stage accompanied by the Met orchestra. Robinson says this is an amazing experience for anybody, particularly singers in their 20s or 30s.
"The American singer is the best-trained singer in the world," Robinson says. With more than 100 professional opera companies in the United States, most of them with apprentice programs, today's U.S. singers can stay in the country to be trained. And the great thing about advancing to the finals, Robinson says, is not only the experience of singing and studying at the Met, but also the fact that agents, company managers and conductorspeople who are in a position to jump-start a careerare in the audience. "It's phenomenal exposure."
One singer from UK will get that exposure in April. Corey Crider, a 25-year-old baritone and Marion, Kentucky, native, won the Tri-State Regional Audition held in UK's Memorial Hall in November. Crider competed against nine of the best singers from Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. He sang three arias for the judges. The first was a selection that showcased his acting as he cataloged the conquests of Don Giovanni (Mozart's character based on the lascivious Don Juan). And it didn't matter he was singing in Italian; it was clear what he was talking about. "Corey is a very gifted singer and actor. He has a lot of things going for him. I imagine the people in New York are going to sit up and take notice," Robinson says. Crider has spent two years under the direction of voice teacher Stephen King, who has been at UK since 1994.
"It's nice that UK is in a position now not to be considered an 'also ran,'" Robinson says. "Because it was always Indiana University, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and, oh, Kentucky. But now we're right up there with the other conservatories in terms of the talent we turn out, and we're all very proud of that."
In fact on Monday morning after the regional audition, Robert Shay, dean of the College of Fine Arts, sent an e-mail to UK President Lee Todd, who was out of town that weekend. It read: "The UK opera team won its bowl game on Saturday."
As Shay says, "We beat a couple of nationally ranked teams, and, in part, I think this is because of Gail's presence. The fact that she is here has made an enormous difference in terms of our ability to recruit the best students, because they know what it means to study with somebody like Gail Robinson."
"She has brought a level of sophistication people expect to find at major conservatories around the country," says Everett McCorvey, who has lead the opera theatre program since 1996. The opera program is part of UK's 85-student voice program. McCorvey, who has known Robinson since his days as a free-lance singer in New York, has judged competitions with her and interacted with her while he was in charge of reviewing young-artist programs for the National Endowment for the Arts. "Gail has considerable knowledge in the business of opera. In her position at the Met, she was the most powerful person in terms of influencing careers of young artists in this country," he says.
And this was evident even to the students as she taught a class during her first visit to the university. "I invited her to come down to see two productions, with two casts, of 'Cosi Fan Tutte,' and she taught a Master Class. About midway through the class, you could just tell that the students had the realization that this lady could change their lives. And it was a big moment for the students. She has that sort of clout in the business," says McCorvey.
"She's a household name in New York City opera circles," Shay says. "And they all said, 'She's going where?!' They could sort of understand why she left the Met to go into academia before she retired, but she didn't go to Indiana. She didn't go to Michigan. She went to the University of Kentucky, and I believe that made big ripples in New York City."
"I was impressed by the talent of students and the dedication of the faculty," Robinson says. "The endowed chair had a lot to do with having the courage to quit a job that was secure and come to this unknown territory, because I thought if the vision of the administration is such that they will endow a chair in voice, that speaks well for the university. And I wanted to go to a place where I could make an impact."
"She pours herself into her teaching," Shay says. "That's one of the things that separates our program from others. Like all the big programs, we now have a star. But unlike most others, our star has become invested in the students, the program and in the community. Other stars fly in, do their teaching, and leave. Gail Robinson has become a real part of our students' lives."