Metropolitan Opera Hall of Fame soprano Gail Robinson had been distinguished chair in voice at the University of Kentucky for a little while. She was teaching students and going to their performances in recitals and full-scale operas, seeing them receive standing ovations.
She was proud. But one night she expressed a wish to her husband, Henno Lohmeyer.
"Wouldn't it be great if the people in Lexington could hear the real singing," Lohmeyer recalls her asking, "what it really could sound and should sound like?"
This was not to denigrate the UK students or programs, which were strong enough to lure Robinson away from her career as director of the Met's National Council Auditions and its Young Artists Program. But they were students in a field in which singers usually don't hit their primes in vocal and artistic development until they are in their 30s or 40s.
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Central Kentucky has a strong track record of bringing in marquee instrumentalists such as violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, but it has been light on high-profile singers who can give Lexington audiences an idea where area opera students hope to end up someday.
Lohmeyer plans to change that starting this week with the Gail Robinson Series, named in honor of his wife, who died in 2008 after a long battle with rheumatoid arthritis.
The lineup features three singers who developed relationships with Robinson as they came up through the Met's Young Artist and Auditions programs: soprano Christine Goerke, mezzo- soprano Michelle DeYoung and a name familiar to local opera fans, tenor Gregory Turay. The series launches Saturday with Goerke's performance at Transylvania University's Haggin Auditorium.
"When I started this thing, I said we want to present a few concerts, and maybe it's not a bad idea to also honor her," says Lohmeyer, 80, his voice starting to break when talking about his late wife.
The years immediately after her death were solitary for Lohmeyer.
He came to the United States about 40 years ago from Germany, where he was a journalist and eventually transitioned into a career as a television producer and artist agent. After moving to Lexington with Robinson in 1999, he retired and did things like work on the Kentucky District round of the National Council Auditions. Lohmeyer was instrumental in bringing in some high- profile judges from the Met such as baritone Samuel Ramey and soprano Anna Moffo.
After Robinson's death, there were temptations to leave Lexington. His and Robinson's children wanted him to move closer to them in Washington, D.C. Robinson was buried in her hometown of Memphis.
Asked what kept him in Lexington, he motions to walk to the back of his Lexington home.
"This was the room where she died," Lohmeyer says of the modest rectangular room with a small daybed and walls where numerous photographs of Robinson's Metropolitan Opera glory days hang, along with some of her favorite artwork and other sentimental items.
A glamorous black-and-white head shot of a smiling Robinson is on a stand in the middle of the room.
"I just did not have the guts to take these pictures down," Lohmeyer says. "This was our last home we created together — she created more than me, she had much more taste than I did — and I just couldn't pack this up and leave.
"But when Gail passed, I had a reclusive life. I didn't want to see anyone or talk to anyone. Clifton Smith (who partnered with Lohmeyer in presenting the Met auditions) was the only person I really communicated with, because I couldn't find any sense in what I was doing or planned to do."
Finally, UK Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey encouraged Lohmeyer to get back into production and management. Lohmeyer now runs United Artists and Authors Agency, a firm with a small office in downtown Lexington's World Trade Center. The clientele includes a number of former UK students, including sopranos Amanda Balltrip and Patricia Andress, baritone Corey Crider and author Gregory King.
The agency gives Lohmeyer a chance to use his expertise to help young singers navigate the treacherous and murky waters of the opera world, particularly in Europe, where many singers have their best shots at work.
His Multigram Productions is the production division of United Artists and has staged two events, a tribute to legendary Kentucky musician John Jacob Niles in the spring and an August recital by arguably the company's highest-profile artist, baritone Anthony Clark Evans, known as the car salesman from Elizabethtown who won the Met Auditions.
The Robinson series represents Lohmeyer's biggest foray into presenting artists. He acknowledges it's a risk as even some of the most famous figures in the opera world can be relative unknowns outside of cultural hubs like New York and Chicago.
"The problem is, when Michelle DeYoung's management announced last year a recital at Avery Fisher Hall, they had to add a second performance because it sold out," Lohmeyer says. "In Lexington, people don't know who the hell she is. The same goes for Christine Goerke. So I feel a little bit like I'm Don Quixote with the impossible dream, the man of La Mancha fighting the windmills."
Goerke, who performs Saturday, has appeared at most of the major opera houses in the United States and Europe, including the Met and La Scala. She is finishing a run in the title role of Richard Strauss's Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago; The Wall Street Journal called her performance "a triumph."
DeYoung has an equally impressive résumé specializing in dramatic work of composers such as Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner. Her fall engagements include a performance of Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky with the Philadelphia Orchestra in November.
Turay, a UK graduate who helped bring the school to Robinson's attention, has had numerous triumphs, including the world premiere of William Bolcom's A View From the Bridge. Recently he taken time off to study at UK and teach at Transylvania University and is starting a career reboot that January's concert is designed to launch.
Lohmeyer is hoping the series will launch a growing appreciation for world-class opera singing that his late wife wished for Lexington.
"I owe it to Gail," he says.