is the grass any bluer...

is the grass any bluer...
on the other side?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lift Every Voice

by Kim Thomas

“Singing is such a pleasant sensation, it gives me physical
pleasure. It is very soothing, better than taking a tranquilizer.”
— Gail Robinson, 1980

(Note: to view article in its entirety, see the current issue of Ace Weekly 12 ACE Weekly March 5, 2009 where you will find a photograph by Life magazine photographer Henry Grossman, never before seen by the public, is published in Ace Weekly due to the generosity of Henno Lohmeyer--peace--KT)

In honor and in tribute to the life of the late Gail Robinson,
the soprano virtuoso who came to the University of
Kentucky to teach opera, the UK Opera Theatre presents
Lucia di Lammermoor beginning this weekend.

Kentucky audiences had the extraordinary opportunity
to observe Robinson’s career trajectory from her first professional
performance (at the Brown Theatre in Louisville) to the days when she taught and mentored opera students at the University of Kentucky.

The music world truly lost a rare treasure when she
passed away last October of complications relating to
rheumatoid arthritis, which she had battled for decades. Her
ability to live beyond the pain marked her performances
with a sensitivity like few others.

Dr. Everett McCorvey, Director of UK Opera Theatre,
said the decision to honor Professor Robinson this way was
made over a year ago. “We knew that Professor Robinson
was going to retire because of her medical condition, and we
wanted to honor her with a Gala celebration for her years of
service here at UK, and for her tremendous opera career.
Because of her untimely death, we decided to dedicate a full
opera to her instead of just doing an opera gala.”

Why Lucia? McCorvey says it was one of her most
famous roles. “By presenting Lucia, we honor Gail and we
are also featuring one of her top students, Darla Diltz.” (The
title roles will be sung by Darla Diltz and Megan McCauley.
The role of Edgardo will be sung by Jeremy Cady and Bruce
Bean. Lucia is based on Sir Walter Scott’s scandalous 1819
novel The Bride of Lammermoor which laid the foundation for
restrained women asserting themselves in society for the first
time — later came Madame Bovary. The “madness scene” in
Lucia is one of the most famous scenes in opera.)

McCorvey says his fondest memories of the professor
are from the University’s courtship of her to take the job at
UK. “I will never forget the time when we invited Gail for her
official interview at the University. With the help of good
friends Sharon and Jim Reed, we threw a bang-up party for
Gail and her husband Henno. We found out all of their interests
through our young spy at the Met, Gregory Turay.

Through another friend, Linda Carey, we took Gail to the
Keeneland horse races and sat in Linda’s box on the finish
line. The ladies donned their derby hats and umbrellas to
block the sun and we all drank mint juleps to pass the time.
It was a grand visit!” McCorvey’s strategy must have
worked, because a few months later she called to accept the
position. However, he knew the maneuvering was not lost on
Robinson when she added, jokingly, “By the way, the party
and visit to the horse races was very clever!”

Lexington pianist Karen Snider remembers, “It was a
great coup for UK when Professor Robinson left her post as
head of the Met’s Young Artist program, and she continued
that work at UK. I accompanied some of her students, and
she was ever the perfectionist, always inspiring to youth.”
Snider says of Lucia, “It is a glorious finale — it takes the
opera’s story beyond plot — it’s a personal tragedy, but also
a ritual of healing and reconciliation in its own way, and a
political statement ahead of its time.”

On Robinsons’s passing, her students and colleagues
formed a group on Facebook called “I’m Sad that Gail
Robinson Can’t Be Reached by Telephone.”

Robinson’s husband, the ebullient and gracious Henno
Lohmeyer — a well known television producer and journalist
in his own right — made his collection of hundreds of
photos of her available to UK Opera Theatre, and thanks to
Lohmeyer and the Met, attendees at the Opera House will be
treated to a display of the actual costume in which she
appeared as Lucia. Lohmeyer has an unending array of stories
and photographs depicting his and Robinson’s moments
spent with artists like Rudolph Nureyev, Victor Borge, Jimmy
Stewart, Shirley MacClaine, President Richard Nixon,
Patricia Nixon, and President Clinton, just to name a few.

Soprano with a Signature Snicker
Gail Robinson’s success as an opera singer came to her
when she was at the tender young age of 19, when she won
a national audition contest through New York’s renowned
Metropolitan Opera Studio. She went on to star in Donizetti’s
Lucia di Lammermoor opposite Placido Domingo at 24, stepping
in as an understudy for the ailing Roberta Peters. Her
200+ performances for the New York Metropolitan Opera
were critically lauded.

Dr. Sherri Phelps, a colleague and former student of
Robinson’s, lights up when she begins to speak about her
friend. She recalls, “When I first got up the courage to call
and ask about studying with her, I told her I had been ‘deeply
ruminating about something.’” Gail’s immediate response
was, ‘You are becoming a nun!’ followed by her signature,
somewhat sneaky laugh!”

She adds respectfully, “Placing a musical phrase in her
care was truly like handing da Vinci a paint brush. When she
sang, time stood still — I used to call her a ‘time spinner.’ When
SHE told you something you were doing was good, it inspired
a new level of confidence and trust in your own performing.”

Darla Dilz, who will share the lead role of Lucia came to
UK as a Doctoral student in 2004 and, “instantly fell in love
with the entire faculty. They are really all wonderful, but Gail
was my voice type, and I felt that she could offer me guidance
into my next step career wise. I was slow to respond to
her methods as I was an older student and rather stuck in my
ways! She was very patient with me."

Dilz completed her course work and duties as a TA and
moved to New York to “try out the singing thing.” She says,
“At least a dozen times now I have been to the Me. Each time
I visit, I go downstairs to stop and look at the picture of Gail
as Lucia! In my recent trips I usually sit at the back of the theater
and imagine how she must have felt there, and what it
must have been like to have heard her on that stage...Even in
the years that I knew Gail, even in a wheelchair she maintained
an elegant sophistication and grace.”

Dilz tells the story of when she and Robinson were actually
discussing the role of Lucia. “We we were often changing
our minds about if it was a good choice or not, particularly,
because of one note that sopranos traditionally take in the
mad scene. We hammered away trying to find it and finally
she said, ‘I think you are a D-natural soprano today; save the
E flats, you only have so many!’ She said this to me after
telling a story about her being backstage at the Met in dressing
room and some other soprano telling her the same thing.”
Dilz goes on to say, “Ultimately, she taught me to make
intelligent choices, not to force things that were not natural. I
feel that she would want to be remembered more as an artist
than an academic. Don’t get me wrong, Gail was brilliant and
knew pretty much everything about her craft...but she was a
singer first, always a singer. I loved that about her.”

She finishes, “Ultimately, the most important thing that
she offered me was the freedom to just sing. I tend to get really
stuck in the ‘technique’... In singing Lucia, that will be
foremost on my mind: to enjoy singing and to enjoy the
wonderful opportunity that UK has provided me to sing this
gorgeous role.”

Robinson is quoted in Jerome Hines’ Great Singers on
Great Singing
, “The greatest realization of the word ‘technique’
came to me during a period of serious illness in my
early twenties. I found that my body would not respond to
what had always come naturally. I was forced to develop and
fully understand my instrument, and learn, not just how to
make a beautiful, but how to sing in adversity.”
This will be a fitting tribute.

*UK Opera Theatre will present Donizetti’s Lucia di
Lammermoor, accompanied by the UK Symphony Orchestra with
conductor John Nardolillo. Lexington Opera House. Friday, March
6 at 7:30pm through Saturday, March 14, at 10:30pm. Tix,
Singletary Center box office 859.257.4929.

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