Gail Robinson, the Metropolitan Opera diva whose decision to join the faculty at the University of Kentucky helped put the school's opera program on the map, died Sunday morning after a long battle with rheumatoid arthritis. She was 62.
"She brought our program to the attention of the national professional community," said Everett McCorvey, director of opera at the University of Kentucky. "We knew about the excitement of the program, but to have someone of her stature come to UK was a major coup for us."
Ms. Robinson, a native of Jackson, Tenn., won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions at 19 and made her Metropolitan Opera debut at 21 in the title role of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, stepping in for Roberta Peters on a Met tour in Detroit. Ms. Robinson went on to a distinguished career on the Met stage and in many other opera houses, singing most of the major roles in the soprano repertoire.
Offstage, she became the director of the Met's National Council Auditions and the Young Artist Program. There, she helped nurture the talents of many aspiring singers, including a tenor from the University of Kentucky named Gregory Turay.
In 1999, she joined the University of Kentucky School of Music faculty as a distinguished professor in voice.
"Her legacy will be raising the level of musicianship at UK and spotting talent and nurturing it," said Stephen Penn, a vocal coach and accompanist at UK, who worked closely with Ms. Robinson. "She was a great advocate that young talent should be able to perform on stage, with an orchestra."
McCorvey said Ms. Robinson's presence was a key to recruiting some top-notch students to UK, such as Afton Battle, who advanced to the national rounds of the Met Auditions earlier this year. Many of Ms. Robinson's students excelled in the Met auditions that launched her career and became prominent players in UK Opera productions.
"Working with her was like learning a jump shot from Michael Jordan," said Sheri Phelps, who studied with Ms. Robinson four years while earning a doctorate at UK.
Even though "she was the only person on faculty who had James Levine on speed dial," Phelps said, referring to the Met's legendary artistic director, "she was also very approachable and very caring."
Phelps recalled that, during a year when she had to be away from school to care for her ailing father, Ms. Robinson would call to check in.
"It's not what you would expect," Phelps said, given Ms. Robinson's prestige. "But she was the consummate Southern belle."
Penn and McCorvey pointed out that Ms. Robinson wanted to work with undergraduates.
"She provided a very warm and stress-free environment that allowed me to sing," said Amanda Balltrip, a soprano who studied with Ms. Robinson for her undergraduate career. "Every semester, she would pass out a syllabus to everyone in her studio, and the No. 1 goal was always, 'Maintain the joy of singing.' "
Ms. Robinson and her husband, Henno Lohmeyer, were key to helping grow the Kentucky District round of the Met auditions, attracting top-flight judges to come and give master classes as well and preside over the event.
During her tenure at UK, Ms. Robinson battled rheumatoid arthritis, which last year forced her to stop working with students in her studio at UK and to eventually step down from her chair.
Balltrip remembered that her final classes with Ms. Robinson were at the teacher's home, where she saw pictures of Ms. Robinson in costume for her roles at the Met and elsewhere, alongside pictures of her family.
"Her life was a dream come true," Balltrip says. "She had a major career in opera, and that balanced with a family life."
According to Dr. Clifton Smith, a family friend, Ms. Robinson died at 9:45 a.m. Sunday at St. Joseph Hospital East, surrounded by her family and friends.
Ms. Robinson is survived by Lohmeyer; her mother, Hazel Robinson of Memphis; son Patrick Lohmeyer, daughter Jennifer Poney and three grandchildren, all of Washington, D.C. Ms. Robinson will be buried in Memphis, Smith said.
Smith said the funeral is likely to be Friday or Saturday in Memphis.
McCorvey and Smith said next weekend's UK Opera performances of La Bohème and this year's Kentucky District round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions will be dedicated to Ms. Robinson, and there will be a Lexington memorial to celebrate her life sometime in November.
A UK Opera production of Lucia di Lammermoor in March already had been scheduled in Ms. Robinson's honor.
Memorial donations can be made to the Lexington Opera Society for expenses related to presenting the Kentucky District round of the Metropolitan Opera National Competition at P.O. Box 8463, Lexington, KY, 40533-8463.
Reach Rich Copley at (859) 231-3217 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3217