Sure, Robert Easley’s clients appreciate his work, but do people rise up in a six-minute standing ovation and throw roses at his feet? They did in the ’90s. As a classical tenor, “Bobby” Easley took the stage in opera houses from Paris to Düsseldorf to Tokyo — to reviews that used phrases like “knock-your-socks-off high notes.” He established himself as a rising star in the fiendishly demanding world of grand opera.
But in a long, dark night of the soul — on a 12-hour flight from Paris to Johannesburg — he faced the other side of the glamour, an emptiness in the singing life. He wanted to go home to his wife at night, but she was an ocean and a continent away. They had delayed having children long enough. On the way to Johannesburg, the seeds were sown for his decision on a new career. He ultimately decided to give up the opera life and become a lawyer.
A “son of the Metroplex and proud of it,” he went home to Texas to get his J.D. at Southern Methodist University. But did he trade the splendor of opera for a three-piece pinstripe suit and life behind a desk? Not this associate at the Beckham Group.
Fluent in German, Italian, French and, of course, English, he is building a practice in international law. He sees litigation as a form of performance, with the same rigorous demands of analysis and study that he has been honing since he started playing piano as a kid. He brings his communication skills to bear on international mediation and arbitration, for which he received certification from the Humboldt Law School in Berlin. He leans toward colorful attire, and proudly wears gifts from the fashion clients he is cultivating in European haute couture.
His boss, Blake Beckham, says, “Bobby is part of our marketing plan.”
And oh, yes, Easley keeps his hand in music by playing a few concerts a year — major piano concertos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff with respectable orchestras. Why piano rather than opera these days? “It’s easier,” he says.
Easley the lawyer learned many lessons from Easley the singer. Do your homework. Play to the crowd. Execute your intentions to the fullest. And meet any argument head-on with a fierce determination to emerge triumphant.
When Easley tells a story, the phrases are clear, the emphasis pointed.
“I was singing Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in Düsseldorf and [in the musical score] there are written high E-flats for the tenor. Of course, the soprano always usurps them, but I decided to sing them anyway.
“The audience loved it. When you’ve got the soprano and the tenor both screaming their lungs out on a top E-flat, it’s a crowd pleaser. The critic the next day said I was hogging the stage by stealing the soprano’s high E-flats. I wrote him a letter — auf Deutsch — saying actually it was my high E-flat. I allowed her to share it.”
The critic responded by publishing Easley’s letter, and the musical notation showing the evidence, as well as the apology “Herr Easley, I am sorry.” But critics being what they are, he also huffed, “‘I still think he butchered the legato,’” Easley says.
Brutal criticism, along with roses, champagne and the grindingly hard work of a vocal athlete — that’s the life of an opera singer.
In 1993, Easley graduated from Baylor University with a master’s degree in vocal performance and opera literature. He and his elementary school sweetheart, Tina, got married during the last year of his studies and moved to Austin soon after he graduated. Why Austin? “She had a job and I just needed an airport.”
He left for Europe, alone, with his backpack, a Eurail pass, a round-trip plane ticket and the contents of his savings account — to sing 30 auditions in 90 days, including one in Lyon, France.
“They said, ‘Thank you very much. We’ll let you know.’” And he went back to sleeping on trains and auditioning for anyone who would hear him.
Then in that great show biz tradition, Easley’s agent got a call from Lyon. A tenor had pulled out of a production. Was Easley still in Europe? Could he come and sing Donizetti’s Elixir of Love? For that matter, had he ever sung it?
“Of course, I had,” Easley told them. He found it unnecessary to mention that the venue was grad school and the language was English. So, with less than a week’s notice, he relearned the leading role in Italian and made his European debut. It was a smash. The reviewer referred to him as a “strapping young Texan” who “clearly won the crowd with his panache and vocal fireworks.”
At 5 feet 10 inches, Easley doesn’t exactly think of himself as “strapping.” But he projects a large presence, and as a slim fellow amongst round opera singers, he may look taller than he is.
Someone from L’Opéra Bastille was there and took notice of the big Texan talent. Several months later, L’Opéra Bastille began regularly using Easley, which is how he came to be based in Paris.
Here’s how he describes his working life there. He’d start the day with a 5-mile run, along the banks of the Seine, circling Notre Dame and past the opera house, where he checked the rehearsal schedule to see what “service I’d been posted.” (Musicians’ contracts revolve around the number of “services” — rehearsals or performances in a given week and season.) Home. Shower. Breakfast. One-hour warm-up, technical exercises only. Then repertoire — learning and practicing actual parts. Rehearsal from noon to 2:30. Rehearsal from 3:30 till 6:00 or 7:00. Then performance or perhaps a third rehearsal in the evening. He might rehearse for eight hours total, and then perform a major role in a three-hour opera: La Traviata, Rigoletto or Madam Butterfly. Dinner sometime between midnight and 2:00 a.m. Go home. Unwind by reading Le Monde to “see what was happening with Clinton and Monica.” Then “call home, check in with my wife, miss her terribly and go to bed lonely.”
Tina was eventually able to join him there. But a singer based in Paris doesn’t live there the way, say, a baker would.
And so to the night he calls his “epiphany.”
“I remember leaving Charles de Gaulle Airport around midnight. It was snowing, below zero. I had checked the weather in Johannesburg, 110 degrees Fahrenheit. A 115-degree differential. That’s good for the voice.
“I was exhausted. I was in rehearsals for one show in Paris and performing in Johannesburg and literally commuting back and forth. I woke up on that flight, several hours into it, in a dark airplane cabin, and for the first time in my life, I could not recall where I was going, what airport I had departed from, what literature I was to sing when I got there.
“It was the scariest single moment I can recall. I had to take out my flight bag to see where I was going. Yes. Johannesburg. What opera? Don Giovanni. Wait, have I learned Ottavio yet? What’s the aria? Oh, yeah. Can I sing it?”
Like students who dream of walking into a final exam for a subject they’ve never studied, almost all performers sweat this nightmare. But usually when they’re still asleep.
“For several months I’d been feeling something wasn’t quite in place. On that flight, I realized I had better find out what.” He came to see that “the missing piece was the gift of being with my family every night.”
He had considered law school during college until he’d realized that there were only enough hours in the day to prepare for one career. He chose music then. He chose law now.
He called his agent to tell her he was quitting the business, and she first responded with a slew of German expletives. After she calmed down she told Easley, “But I support you all the way. You need to be happy first.” After a year or so of winding up commitments, taking the LSATs and applying to law school, he returned home to Texas and SMU, where he received a J.D. with honors.
Once he settled in, he and Tina bought a townhouse in downtown Dallas, which they decorated with a grand piano, Chagall prints and a Fisher-Price train set. Three-year-old Drew lies under the piano when Daddy practices and is quick to let him know if the Tchaikovsky isn’t as good this week as it was last. Tina continues her work from her home as a business writer, managing and editing proposals. And best of all, another Easley will be here by the time this article is in print.
Snapshots of the latest Easley in utero adorn Bobby’s office door.
“Singers have resonance where their brains ought to be.” That’s the prejudice in the classical music world. So the public at large could be pardoned for wondering exactly what this opera singer brings to the practice of the law — besides performance skills and a voice that his office neighbor will tell you can be heard through closed doors.
“People have asked me, ‘Did you learn to analyze a case like this in law school?’ and I said, ‘No, I learned it in my piano teacher’s studio in third grade!’” He’s emphatic about how his musical education has influenced his law practice.
“For ten years before I even went to college [to study singing] I knew how to dissect a very complicated piece of literature, even though it was musical, deconstruct it to its component parts, study it, then re-amalgamate the component pieces into a coherent whole that the listener perceives as fluent and beautiful even though to me it was the hardest thing I knew how to do.
“It’s precisely the same thing I do in the courtroom. I take a very complex problem; I pull it apart. I used to pull it apart into harmony, rhythmic structure, text. But now I pull it apart into legal issues, fact issues, how the rules apply to those issues, what the local climate is, what the jury will perceive, and then put those pieces back together into a product that is fluent, articulate and easy to receive on the ear. I had no idea going into law school that that architecture would serve me so well.
“My argument has to appear fluid and easy and facile. Otherwise [the jury] will stop listening. Just as the audience stops listening to the tenor who is having difficulty with his high notes, because it’s too uncomfortable to watch. I have seen juries literally turn their faces away from an attorney who’s having technical difficulty in execution, even though he’s right.”
Instead of aiming for the highest number of billable hours, Easley seeks to offer more profitable billable hours — with a skill set that combines fluency in four languages with transcontinental training and certification. As he is building this international practice, he is “cutting his procedural teeth” in domestic civil litigation.
His choice of piano is practical too. He can “keep his chops up” with a half hour of technical exercises a day. Like a daily run or swim, he starts to feel ill at ease if he goes without. Then, of course, he has to master the music. But he chooses repertoire that exploits his operatic background — grand, sweeping Romantic concertos and Franz Liszt’s piano transcriptions of opera. Conductors tell him he can make the lines sing in a way most pianists cannot.
There’s no hint of regret in his voice when he talks about choosing the law. He relishes the problem analysis and takes deep satisfaction in earning his clients’ trust.
But opera will always be lifeblood to him. On the phone in his townhouse, ordering take-out from a local Italian restaurant, he interrupts himself to turn to guests and say, “Listen to that high E flat!” His forefinger rises in the air as the soprano on the CD nails the note and holds it — and holds it — until a luscious, lingering descent. Easley sighs, “The orchestra waited for her to make the next move. Now that’s power. That’ll be two house salads and a Caesar.”