Postcard from SF Opera's Ian Robertson
This week’s postcard comes from longtime SFGC friend and collaborator Ian Robertson. Ian is San Francisco Opera’s Chorus Director and is Artistic Director of the San Francisco Boys Chorus (SFBC). His granddaughter, Eggy Ahn-Robertson, is a current member of SFGC’s Prep Chorus.
Dear SFGC Community:
It’s my great pleasure to write a postcard for you – as a musical collaborator, a previous SFGC parent, and a current proud SFGC grandparent. I’ve worked with SFGC choristers for the last 31 years since I became Chorus Director at San Francisco Opera. It’s always so exciting to see the look on the choristers’ faces when they come to the War Memorial Opera House for stage rehearsals and performances. It can be a life-changing experience for young performers, something they never forget. And it helps that SFGC are always so excellently prepared! I also had the chance to do a short opera workshop at this year’s Prep and Beginners & Beyond camps – it was such fun working with the youngest choristers and I had a blast!
Last year, SFGC and SFBC performed a joint concert at the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, and joined forces to sing several pieces at the end. It was wonderful to bring the groups together, and such a pleasure, as always, to work with SFGC Artistic Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe. Valérie and I have now collaborated on several projects with SFBC and SFGC, including a performance for the Laguna Honda 150 Year Celebration and singing I Left My Heart in San Francisco for Tony Bennett.
I’ve enjoyed collaborating with SFGC for many years now, and one memorable event from the past was conducting the joint performance with SFGC and SFBC at Barack Obama’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., in 2009. Past SFGC Artistic Director Susan McMane and I worked with the choruses to prepare six songs, of which we each conducted three, which our young singers performed for millions of people. On the day of the inauguration, we got up at 4 a.m. and traveled by bus (with a police escort!) to the U.S. Capitol on the National Mall to take our places right behind where President Obama would be inaugurated. It was freezing cold – we were bundled up in coats, scarves, gloves, and hats – but everyone forgot their discomfort as soon as they started singing. What a life-changing experience for our young singers that was!
Many people ask me how I ended up working as a professional musician. I started playing the piano at age 5 and studied for years. It became an essential tool in my work as a music professional. I played lots of solo recitals and completed my studies at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and at the University of Glasgow. I taught high school music for a couple of years then joined Scottish Opera as Chorus Master and conductor, then came to San Francisco Opera where I have conducted many performances. Opera can be such a complicated and fun thing to prepare and perform. Some highlights of my career include conducting, amongst others, Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos and Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and preparing the San Francisco Opera Chorus for over 300 productions. Several of those that stand out are: Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Beethoven’s Fidelio¸ and Messiaen’s Saint François D’Assise for which I received the Olivier Messiaen Foundation Prize.
On a lighter note, I remember a performance of The Pearl Fishers that I was conducting when thick stage fog seeped into the orchestra pit and surrounded the players so that they couldn’t see me anymore! I felt like I was conducting myself alone. I remember, too, a chorister in a rehearsal for Fiddler on the Roofwho danced himself off the stage and into the orchestra pit – luckily, he was OK!
For young people hoping to have a career in music, I would recommend learning an instrument as well as singing – they are entirely complementary. Leading young people into the world of music and singing is so important for me because music has always been at the center of my life, and I want to share all of it with them. Working with Valérie, SFGC choristers and my own San Francisco Boys Chorus energizes me – I hope it opens our young singers’ hearts and minds to the universal and all-encompassing world of music.