For “Show Boat,” Robinson has been guiding Howard through a singular challenge for the American bass, the singing of “Ol’ Man River,” the emotional ballad difficult for its musical heft and popularity. On top of popularity, most people have memories of Paul Robeson’s or William Warfield’s renditions, adding pressure to a newcomer like Howard.
“It’s tough to sing Joe,” Robinson said. “I was reluctant because I didn’t want to become known for singing ‘Ol’ Man River.’ There’s always a fear in our business of being typecast. But after learning more about the character . . . it isn’t a character that one should be ashamed to play.”
Robinson did worry about Howard taking the role of Joe so early in his career, in terms of typecasting and the importance of the character. While Robinson has an established opera career, having performed at houses around the country in shows including “Turandot,” “Don Giovanni” and “Il Trovatore,” Howard had his WNO debut last year in “Don Giovanni,” and is at the beginning of his career.
“I worried a little bit because it’s a large role, but he’s only doing three shows and doing the simulcast, so it’s good exposure and good to get used to the pressure,” Robinson said.
Howard believes that the role of Joe is helping him to prepare for his next role with the WNO; he’s playing Muhammad Ali in the WNO’s commission of “Approaching Ali.”
“Ali went through the same struggles [as Joe] and often used metaphors, so it does help in a way,” Howard said.
One might think that these two would be less friendly with each other. After all, the mentor could soon be competing with his mentee for parts in operas around the country. But they both agree that they’re not competing. Howard uses a sports metaphor to explain their friendship.
“Being athletes, I think of it as a relay race,” Howard said. “He’s passing the baton, and in the future, I’ll have to pass the baton. We never think of it as competition. We all run for the same team.”
The Washington National Opera production runs through May 26 at the Kennedy Center. 2700 F Street NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org/wno.