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Robert Honeysucker, 74, baritone who overcame barriers

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file

Mr. Honeysucker with conductor John Williams in 1993.

By Globe Staff 

The distinguished baritone Robert Honeysucker was once arrested for attending a concert.

It was 1962 and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was performing in Jackson, Miss., at a hall that was not open to blacks. Mr. Honeysucker, an African-American student then in his sophomore year at Tougaloo College, showed up at the concert knowing the potential consequences. The morning after his arrest, when asked by a local sergeant why he had come, he replied with a calm defiance and a certain self-sustaining dignity: He was there because he was a music student and wanted to hear one of the best orchestras in the world.

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This broadly humane approach, navigating the sometimes murky domains of life and art by the light of a deeply felt personal truth, earned Mr. Honeysucker countless admirers over the course of his acclaimed career as an operatic baritone, recitalist, and oratorio singer.

A fixture of Boston’s musical landscape over some four decades, Mr. Honeysucker died in a Milford, Conn., hospital Oct. 7 after suffering a heart attack while en route to New York City, according to his wife, the pianist Noriko Yasuda. He was 74.

Mr. Honeysucker, who used his deeply resonant baritone to conjure a vast range of heroic, tragic, and comic characters, lived in Cambridge and performed at one time or another with nearly all of the region’s major classical music and opera organizations, as well as with national and international ensembles.

“Bob appeared regularly with the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops from the late 1980s onwards, at Symphony Hall, at Tanglewood, and on the Esplanade,” said Anthony Fogg, artistic administrator of the BSO. “Whether singing ‘The Rake’s Progress’ or ‘Porgy and Bess,’ Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’ or spirituals, he radiated a sense of quiet dignity and elegance, matched by his burnished and beautiful vocal color.”

While frequently spotted in local opera productions, Mr. Honeysucker was a versatile performer, and his annual concerts devoted to the American songbook — with soprano Nancy Armstrong, violinist Daniel Stepner, and gambist Laura Jeppesen at the Museum of Fine Arts — became a local institution. “We were a real family,” Armstrong recalled. “Those melodies just hit you at the heart. And his sound. There’s no one who had his sound.”

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Reviewing one such MFA performance in 1993 under the headline “If only Broadway still sounded this good,” Boston Globe classical music critic Richard Dyer singled out Mr. Honeysucker’s “dashing appearance, big personality, actor’s understanding of character and situation, easy rhythm, relaxed style, and clear diction.” He added: “Once in a while he will soar up to a full-voiced high G or even A that will make your hair stand on end.”

Mr. Honeysucker’s work on the opera stage could leave an equally strong impression, especially in the roles for which he was best known such as Rigoletto, Sharpless, Germont, and Iago. In particular, he had a gift for making operatic expression — the least “natural” of art forms — seem like an organic exteriorization of a character’s inner life. In a 1999 Boston Phoenix review of Puccini’s “Il Trittico,” the critic Lloyd Schwartz wrote of Mr. Honeysucker’s masterful portrayal of a Seine barge captain “who realizes he has lost his wife to one of his own dockworkers. [Mr. Honeysucker’s] aching sadness, his profound inwardness, and the beauty of his singing added up to one of the most moving performances I’ve ever seen.”

Speaking by phone, Odyssey Opera artistic director Gil Rose recalled conducting Mr. Honeysucker in a particularly memorable production of Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” for the now-defunct Opera Boston. “He was a real Verdi baritone who knew how to hold the stage vocally and dramatically,” Rose said, adding that “when conducting Bob, you always felt like you were in partnership. And I think the groundswell of affection for him comes from that quality. He really sang with people in a way that endeared him to all of his colleagues.”

This portrait of Mr. Honeysucker as a particularly generous collaborator and as a mentor to younger singers, was reinforced in recent Globe interviews with many local singers. Among them was mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove, who met Mr. Honeysucker at the very beginning of her career. “I couldn’t have done it without Bob,” she said. “With the confidence that he gave me, and gave to so many others, I flew. Whenever Bob was performing with you, you were the most important and most special person in his world.”

Mr. Honeysucker was also an accomplished oratorio singer, well-known for his performances in Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” and Handel’s “Messiah,” and he was revered as a teacher, with affiliations at Boston Conservatory and the Longy School of Music. In addition, he taught at Brandeis University and Tufts University, and served as assistant director of the Community Music Center in the South End.

“He taught you to really feel the music — you couldn’t fake a note, you couldn’t fake an emotion,” recalled Anna Ross, a private student. “He taught the way he sang.”

Robert Honeysucker was born in 1943 in Memphis and came of age in the South of the 1960s, which he once described as “a decade of defiance, hope, and challenge.” He became active in politics and social issues at an early age, joining the youth division of the NAACP. When he was still too young to vote, he worked in voter registration efforts prior to 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected president. (“JFK was my Lincoln,” he later recalled.) While an undergraduate at Tougaloo College, Mr. Honeysucker befriended the activist Medgar Evers, who brought him to demonstrations and encouraged his deepening commitment to the civil rights movement.

Meanwhile, Mr. Honeysucker majored in music education and voice, trying hard to focus on his studies at a time when drive-by shootings and cross-burnings were not hypothetical dangers. He was deeply shocked in 1963 when Evers was assassinated in his driveway by a white supremacist.

After graduating from Tougaloo, Mr. Honeysucker received a master’s degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, before returning to Mississippi in 1967 to teach voice and conduct the choir at Tougaloo. A year later, on April 4, 1968, professional triumph and national tragedy converged as Mr. Honeysucker was set to lead his choir in a Carnegie Hall performance alongside Duke Ellington and his orchestra. As Mr. Honeysucker was walking onto the Carnegie stage, a manager informed him in a whisper that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. An announcer then shared the news from the stage.

“When he said that MLK was dead, there was such a sound of anguish and pain … It sounded as if Carnegie Hall wept,” Mr. Honeysucker recounted earlier this year during a speech at the Maple Street Congregational Church in Danvers. “The choir was numb, some cried. But we performed that night with great focus and intensity.”

Mr. Honeysucker came to Boston in 1972 for additional graduate studies at Boston University, and later with Donna Roll, who teaches at Longy. Over the years, according to Roll, Mr. Honeysucker struggled palpably, if often privately, with the lingering obstacles that faced many African-American singers aspiring to roam beyond the few roles available to them in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”

“Many casting directors or stage directors have a preconceived idea of how things should be,” Roll said, “and very often they don’t see people of color singing those roles. Especially outside of Massachusetts, Bob found places where he was not asked to sing because of that. It could be very infuriating and hurtful to him. When he worked with African-American students, he would tell them that the only way to deal with this is to move on from it — to have great preparation, great technique, and to give 200 percent.”

Mr. Honeysucker’s life experience also informed some of his artistic choices, and he recorded five discs supported by Videmus, an organization dedicated to increasing awareness of repertoire by African-American composers and women. His discography also includes releases on the Centaur, Ongaku, and Titanic labels. In later years, his concert tours brought him to Japan, to London’s Wigmore Hall, to Berlin’s Theater des Westens, and across the Persian Gulf.

A service has been held for Mr. Honeysucker, who in addition to his wife, Yasuda, leaves two sons, Alan Honeysucker Sr. of Baton Rouge, La., and Damian Honeysucker of Ocala, Fla., and four grandchildren. Two previous marriages ended in divorce.

For many colleagues and audience members, Mr. Honeysucker’s sheer vocal endurance through the decades became almost as striking as the performances themselves. “He had this eternal voice that never aged,” said Torgove. “A few weeks ago, he sounded the same as he did in ‘Orfeo’ in 1987.”

Armstrong added: “There was nothing I could compare his voice to. It was just this soaring resonance. You can still hear it.”


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.