Last year Scottish-Australian Jenna Robertson ditched her engineering job to take the plunge as a full time soprano. She had already clocked up ten major repertoire roles, won the Australian concerto and vocal competition and had been running her own company Operabox for six years. The last 18 months have been spent following her heart. And taking a crash-course in French for her debut this week in the title role of Manon.
|photo Marnya Rothe|
What music gets your heart racing?
Any good opera where there is that magical combination of singing, orchestra, acting, design, surtitles! Amazing! William Kentridge’s production of Berg’s Lulu at the Met got my heart racing like crazy – it was a totally unique and thrilling combination of music with theatre. Of course at the moment, it’s also Massenet.
What calms you down?
Anything that holds my attention for extended time. Film is one of my favourite ways to relax and I love subtle films like those made by director Sofia Coppola.
What do you sing along to?
Verdi, Donizetti, Katie Noonan, Jessie J…so many things!
How are you preparing for your title role in Operabox’s production of Manon?
I’ve been preparing for Manon for most of this year and the biggest challenge for me was the language as I’ve never studied French. I was very fortunate to have the help of Opera Australia Language Coach, Nicole Dorigo, who taught me the French. Of course there is also the musical, technical and dramatic preparation that I’ve worked on also.
A sneak peek from the general rehearsal of Manon, which opens on Friday.
You are doing much more than singing the role; you are also producing and promoting the season plus running the company! Where did you learn the skills to run your own opera company?
I worked internationally in oil and gas for 10 years as an engineer and project manager and had world-class leadership and project management training and experience during that time. That was a warm up for leading an opera company, which is actually harder, as there is never enough money. I’m always trying to learn new skills too. I’ve recently completed a part-time course at NIDA in Directing and training with Creative Partnerships Australia. I also soak up information from wonderful mentors.
Operabox is one of several relatively new grassroots opera companies making a refreshing and vital contribution to WA’s operatic landscape. Why did you decide to launch your own company?
Operabox started with a team of 6 in the beginning in 2011. We are now producing our 7thproduction and have grown to an association with 170 members with 80-90 people involved in each production. Now our focus is on both creating exciting meaty opportunities for arts professionals and providing interesting repertoire for WA audiences. We try to produce operas that meet both those criteria.
|Robertson as Zerbinetta in Operabox’s sensational Ariadne auf Naxos,
which I reviewed here.
Mark Applebaum says music should above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?
I think it has different roles for different people, and can help people in so many ways by healing, inspiring and uniting. In opera, I guess the role of the music is to help tell stories and deliver important messages and the music heightens story telling in a way that in my opinion is unmatched in any other art form.
You have a soft spot for opera. You studied Engineering (with a singing scholarship on the side) at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh and worked for Chevron in WA before make the career switch to opera in 2016. What is the appeal of opera?
A soft spot is a bit of an understatement! Somehow I didn’t see an opera till my early twenties when I was already working as an engineer (it was Natalie Dessay as Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera). I was blown away by the electrifying combination of theatre and music. I’ve been working on moving in that direction ever since. Opera provides me with an unlimited challenge, which I love. There’s always more to learn.
How do you choose the repertoire for Operabox? Why Manon?
We take such care over choosing our pieces. We look at what would be interesting to both our artists, orchestra and our audience, and relevant to today’s society. We also strive for diversity in our offerings. Manon is our first French opera and has never been performed in WA with orchestra.
|Gaetano Bonfante (Des Grieux) and Robertson (Manon)|
You have a pretty stellar cast joining you including Opera Australia tenor Gaetano Bonfante and baritone Sitiveni Talei as Des Grieux and Brétigny, with Kristin Bowtell as Lescaut. Christopher Dragon is taking a break as Associate Conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to conduct the season and Sydney opera director Joseph Restubog is bringing a twist to the traditional ending (spoiler alert!). What can the audience expect?
Yes, we have an amazing team of people and I am continually blown away by the team we are able to pull together for each opera. The audience can expect to see our cast who are a mixture of Perth and Sydney-based singers, a small chorus and an orchestra of 25 in the pit conducted by Chris. It’s a fully staged production set in the 1920s, which director Joseph Restubog chose because the story really suits that period. That said, this story is so human its themes are timeless. As there have been a few 1920s shows in Perth this year already, our design team focused on trying to do something different. I’m particularly amazed at the work that costume designer Stephanie Cullingford has done with the historical accuracy of our costumes.
So far your singing career has taken you to Austria to study at the AIMS opera studio in Graz, Berlin for coaching, NIDA to complete studies in opera directing and you are currently based in Sydney soaking up the teaching of legends like Tony Legge, Arax Mansourian and Nicole Dorigo.… Where to next?
I’m heading back over east after Manon. I have some more concerts this year in NSW, then heading to Europe again in November-December for more coaching and auditions, and then have an exciting role in 2018 in a new Australian opera called Mimma, which will be premiered in Perth at the Regal Theatre. The producers saw one of my performances of Anna Bolenain 2016 and offered me this role.
|As Violetta in La Traviata, Opera New England, NSW|
What is your favourite place in Perth?
I don’t think it’s a specific place, but after living in Sydney this year, I just love the lack of traffic and ease of getting around! I love the colour of the blue sky that seems to be unique to Perth.
Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?
I love good food, wine, and have a passion for film and photography. In fact my recent studies in directing at NIDA in Sydney have changed how I see everything.
Big thanks to Jenna for taking time out of production week to chat with us. Manon runs 1st-7th September at Newman College and 3rd September at Darlington Hall. More details and tickets here but be quick because tickets are selling fast. For more info on Jenna you can stalk her on Facebook and her website and follow Operabox here.