SFOpera - After a Lifetime of Music, Ian Robertson Bids Farewell to the San Francisco Opera Chorus

After a Lifetime of Music, Ian Robertson Bids Farewell to the San Francisco Opera Chorus

Ian Robertson

The production had been dogged by problems, starting on opening night. The set of San Francisco Opera’s 1992 Don Carlo was meant to be dynamic, with walls that moved and narrowed in on the characters at crucial moments in the story.

But the walls had been getting stuck. And on the first night of performance, singers found themselves trapped on the wrong part of the stage. The curtain had to be lowered while crews rushed to get the set moving again.

Ian Robertson was ready for this. He had been watching videos of that first performance, studying the gestures and reactions of then-music director Donald Runnicles, who was conducting at the time. Soon, it would be Robertson’s turn at the podium: He was scheduled to take over conducting duties for the last two performances.

But he couldn’t have expected what was about to happen on the final night.

“There was a huge thump, a huge crash,” Robertson recalled in a recent interview. From the recesses of the orchestra pit, Robertson couldn’t quite see what had happened. But he did notice a cloud of dust rising from the stage.

One of the set’s walls had fallen inwards. And in the chaos of the moment, Robertson remembers the audience’s gasps giving way to peals of laughter. He looked up. The supertitles above the stage read: “And how are things in France today?”

It was a moment of absurdity, of surprise, of spontaneity—the kind of high-wire excitement live theater is made of. These are the stories that an opera veteran accumulates over a career: stories of adversity and triumph. Stories of the laughter, heartbreak, and beauty that can be found every time the curtain rises and the orchestra strikes up.

Stories like these practically trip off Robertson’s tongue on a recent autumn phone call—and little wonder. His career as chorus director at San Francisco Opera alone spans 35 seasons, 342 productions, and thousands of individual performances.

And that’s not mentioning his work as a conductor. Or as a pianist. Or as former Artistic Director of the Grammy-winning San Francisco Boys Chorus.

But this December, Robertson is officially retiring from his post at San Francisco Opera. The Company’s end-of-year chorus concerts are dedicated in his honor.

“It’s time,” Robertson offers by way of explanation. “I’m 74 and not getting any younger. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll retire when I’m 70.’ People retire at 65, you know. But it’s the love of the music and the love of the art form that’s kept me going.”

It’s a love that stretches back to Robertson’s earliest days, growing up in Angus County, Scotland. Robertson hails from Dundee, a port city famous for three industries: jute, jam, and journalism.

Robertson’s family was employed in the latter, journalism. His father was a publisher and printer, involved in the early stages of computerization at Dundee-based media company DC Thomson.

But at home, Robertson’s father turned to music. He liked to play Scottish folk tunes on the violin. “He would scrape away at those all night,” Robertson recalls with characteristic humor.

His mother, meanwhile, wrote poetry and sang songs. It was an environment steeped in the toe-tapping rhythms of Scottish jigs, reels, and strathspeys—sounds that sparked Robertson’s imagination.

When his parents caught him pretending the tabletop was a piano, they knew it was time to act. Robertson was sent to piano lessons. He was five years old. He still remembers the Victorian-style piano he practiced on: a clanky, old upright model with candlestick holders mounted on brackets, in case you needed to play by firelight.

“And after that, I never really thought about anything else but music,” Robertson says. While other students spent time on the school soccer pitch, he found sanctuary in the music department. Then, in the evenings, he continued to practice with a private teacher.

“I would have to bicycle in the rain and wind to my piano lessons,” he says. “I got wet, but I loved them.”

Through his lessons, he learned Mozart sonatas, Chopin preludes, and works by John Ireland and Claude Debussy. By age 16, he was ready to attend the Royal Scottish Academy of Music in Glasgow, where he continued his education with concertos from Beethoven and Brahms.

But his early experiences as a concert soloist proved to be—in Robertson’s words—“hair-raising.” He found he was much more comfortable as an accompanist.

“It seemed natural to me to be supportive,” Robertson recalls. “I wondered: Do I want to do more solo piano work? And in the end, I felt more at home with other people about me.”

Soon, Robertson was playing piano for chorus rehearsals at the Scottish National Orchestra and the Edinburgh International Festival, a gig he had to commute between cities for. A mentor of his, John Currie, also recruited him to play for his ensemble, the John Currie Singers.

His engagements grew so plenty that he never quite finished his PhD studies in 20th-century piano music—a subject which proved overwhelming in scope. Instead, at one point, Robertson took a job as a high school music teacher in the city of Stirling.

Corralling the attention of 30-some teenagers proved to be “great training” for his future as a chorus director, Robertson jokes. It was around that time that he received an offer that would jumpstart his opera career.

The head of the John Currie Singers happened to also be the chorus master at the Scottish Opera. And he was looking for an assistant. Though the wages were half of what Robertson earned while teaching, he leapt at the opportunity.

Robertson had seen his first opera at a young age: He was only around 10 years old when his father took him to see Mozart's Don Giovanni. In the dark of the theater, Robertson remembers that the opera dragged on and on—he had a child’s attention span, after all—but he was instantly smitten by the confluence of orchestral music, singing, and theater.

“That was something that engaged me right away,” Robertson says.

His position at the Scottish Opera allowed him to explore the art form in greater depth. Together with his wife Eleanor and daughter Elaine, Robertson traveled throughout the United Kingdom and abroad, touring with the opera company. During one of those tours, at a stop in Edinburgh, a conductor approached him before a performance.

“It was pouring with rain,” Robertson recalls. “And he introduced himself to me and said, ‘I’ve come here to hear your performance of Manon Lescaut. Do you fancy going for a drink after?’”

The conductor’s name was Richard Bradshaw, and he worked for San Francisco Opera. He was scouting for his eventual successor: a new chorus director for the Company.

After an audition in Brussels with San Francisco Opera’s first-ever music director, John Pritchard, Robertson received a nine-month contract, starting in the spring of 1987. He and his wife packed up their family and never looked back.

The move proved to be an adjustment, though. Robertson arrived early to scope out housing, only to discover that much of the rent in San Francisco was beyond his means. His eyes lingered on the city’s above-ground power lines—an unfamiliar sight in many parts of Europe, where electrical grids are threaded underground. It felt like the Wild West.

“I got lost in the Sunset District,” Robertson recalls. “And I was just stunned by the sameness of all these endless streets and endless avenues and all these wires and poles hanging up.”

But he soon fell in love with the diversity of the city, with its mesh of immigrant communities. “I never saw that in Scotland,” Robertson says. It was an empowering environment to be a part of. “I am an immigrant. And I’m proud to be an immigrant,” he adds.

Then there was the opera house itself. San Francisco Opera was one of the biggest, most prestigious opera companies in the United States. With a capacity of over 3,000, it dwarfed the Scottish Opera.

“That was always a thrill to me, preparing the choruses for all the really, really world-class conductors and stage directors,” Robertson says.

But Robertson arrived under unusual circumstances. A documentary team had gotten permission to record backstage—and its focus was the San Francisco Opera Chorus.

“My first year when I came over here, I wondered who all these film crews were, hanging around outside my rehearsals, poking cameras up my nose,” Robertson says.

That footage would ultimately become In the Shadow of the Stars, the film that won the 1991 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. While the documentary centered on the chorus members themselves, Robertson featured prominently, with his shag haircut, red scarf, and cozy array of knit sweaters.

“Yeah, I don’t know where the sweaters came from,” Robertson laughs. “Apparently, a chorister—when I was off or sick or something—spouted up in my absence, ‘He’s having the surgical removal of a sweater.’ Ha! I wore so many sweaters, oh my God, when I think of it.”

As chorus director, Robertson currently oversees an ensemble of 44 professional singers—but that number can swell to a hundred or more, depending on the opera. Each performer brings their own backstory, their own needs, their own talent. And it is Robertson’s job to get to know them—and bring out their best work.

From the start, the demands he faced were great. Robertson’s arrival coincided with a period when San Francisco Opera was embarking on some of its most ambitious productions to date.

In the early 1990s, San Francisco Opera struck up a relationship with Valery Gergiev, artistic director of Russia’s Mariinsky Theatre. Their partnership led to a slate of elaborate Russian operas coming to San Francisco for the first time: chorus-heavy works like 1991’s War and Peace and 1994’s The Fiery Angel.

While the chorus itself learned the Russian lyrics through transliterations—scripts written in a way that English-speakers could easily pronounce—Robertson himself had to brush up on the Cyrillic alphabet, in order to better advise the singers.

“I'd never done a Russian opera in Russian before, when I came here,” Robertson says. “But that's no excuse for not knowing the language and the Cyrillic yourself.”

He prepared his chorus so thoroughly that Gergiev himself took notice. “Gergiev said to me, ‘Well, your chorus sounds very, very good. But you pronounce Russian too well! The Russian choruses go for more color, dark color.’”

It was during that period that future superstar Anna Netrebko made her U.S. debut. “I’ll never forget that. It was in Ruslan and Lyudmila. That was amazing, that young voice,” Robertson says dreamily.

But even greater challenges lay ahead for Robertson and his chorus. One of the toughest was the 2002 North American premiere of Saint Francis of Assisi, the five-hour epic from French composer Olivier Messiaen.

The opera included a vast chorus scene where Saint Francis delivers a sermon to a tree full of birds.

“They were trying to make—oh, I don’t know—a hundred choristers group together in the middle of the stage, singing in the wrong direction and singing very difficult music, to look like one huge bird,” Robertson recalls. The staging was so complicated that Robertson worried he and his team wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

“And I just remember, at the final dress, it actually began to work. The music was good and the stage look was good and I felt like: I don't know how we ever achieved that,” he says. Saint Francis of Assisi remains one of his crowning achievements.

To get a chorus ready for such a monumental task, Robertson says you have to train the singers “to the point where the music’s inside their body.” It should be so deeply ingrained that nothing can distract them—no matter what happens on stage.

And as Robertson knows well, anything can happen in live theater—and often does. During the performance of one Russian opera he worked on, the chorus was expected to parade on stage, dressed as an orchestra of skeletons. Each skeleton had a fake instrument to play. But as the scene changed, one instrument—a tuba—got tangled in the backdrop. When the backdrop rose, so did the tuba.

“Fortunately, the stage manager noticed it. They pulled the front curtain down very briefly, rescued the tuba, and pulled the curtain up again, and everything proceeded as normal. No one had really been any the wiser,” Robertson recalls. “But of course we were just killing ourselves with laughter backstage.”

But after a lifetime of music, Robertson is ready for a change. “I spent most nights and weekends, most of my life, at the opera house,” he says.

With retirement on the horizon, he’s looking forward to spending that time instead with his family, particularly his 7-year-old granddaughter. He and his wife also hope to travel once the COVID pandemic wanes. While he toured the world with various musical groups, he rarely got the chance to stop and enjoy sight-seeing and museums the way a tourist might.

But as he looks back on his decades-long tenure with the opera, he has one message: “I’m lucky.” He has witnessed a period in opera when the art form has become more collaborative, more innovative. And he doesn’t see that momentum slowing.

“It keeps developing and keeps growing. It becomes more innovative,” he predicts when asked about opera’s future. “Fresh air is what we need.” And that’s exactly what Robertson himself is chasing, as he enters a new phase in his own life.

Ian Robertson takes his final bow as Chorus Director in the San Francisco Opera Chorus in Concert on December 11 and 12, 2021. For more information, please visit: sfopera.com/chorusconcert

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