Ian Robertson
Ian Robertson | Credit: Kristen Loken/San Francisco Opera

Longevity is the obvious first thought at the news of Ian Robertson’s retirement as director of the San Francisco Opera Chorus at the end of 2021, his 35th year on the job, but there is something more important than that: the consistent excellence and many high points of his career.

He has led the superb singers of the Chorus to such triumphs as the 1991 War and Peace and 1995 Ruslan and Lyudmila during the Valery Gergiev-led “Russian Invasions,” the 1989 Mefistofele (and its repetitions), the 2011 Nixon in China, the 2014 Les Troyens, the 2019 Billy Budd, and so many more ... ask any veteran opera fan, and they will tell you of vivid memories of the performances and of the sound and presence of the Chorus.

Robertson has also conducted the orchestra in productions of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Verdi’s Rigoletto, Puccini’s Turandot, and Wagner’s Lohengrin.

Of course, there are numerous Tosca productions as well and the overwhelming Te Deum at the end of Act 1, and that’s what Robertson is working on now, along with Fidelio, which also has choral high points.

Chorus Concert, 2016
Chorus Concert, 2016 | Credit: Matthew Washburn/San Francisco Opera

Why retire? At a healthy 73, Robertson has no physical reasons, but getting through the challenges and obstacles of 342 productions under five general directors (Terence McEwen, Lotfi Mansouri, Pamela Rosenberg, David Gockley, Matthew Shilvock), economic turndowns, the Loma Prieta quake, working with an opera company without home for almost two years, and now the COVID shutdown ... that does take a lot out of anyone.

Having retired in 2019 from his “other job,” leading the San Francisco Boys Choir for 23 years, Robertson had planned to leave the Opera before, once in 2015, “after I’ve done Troyens with Donald [Runnicles], that heartwarming experience,” he said, and again at the end of 2019, but the pandemic interfered:

“I said to Matthew [Shilvock], ‘I can’t just up and go when the company is in high need, all my chorus is unemployed,’ and he agreed.”

If there is one “reveal” about Robertson’s nature — and secret of his success — that’s it: his dedication to the organization, the Chorus, and all his co-workers. That’s what I saw too, from innumerable performances, many instances of spotting him in the standing room (“best place to hear individual voices”), and witnessing a handful of rehearsals. The very opposite of an Imperious Maestro, he is invariably caring, supportive, always in the trenches with the troops.

The Chorus in Britten’s Billy Budd
The Chorus in Britten’s Billy Budd, 2019 | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Personality and a broad, uniquely deep knowledge add to the package too, exemplified by his aside at the time of the unforgettable 2019 production of Billy Budd. He, a scion of seafaring Scots, responded to questions about ancient-obscure naval references in the text about the Chorus endlessly scrubbing the floor:

“Holystone is a soft and brittle sandstone,” he explained, “that was formerly used in the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy for scrubbing and whitening the wooden decks of ships. The term may have come from the fact that ‘holystoning the deck’ was originally done on one’s knees, as in prayer.”

As longtime Chorus member Sally Mouzon says: “It is hard to believe that Ian Robertson is actually retiring! His hair may be gray now, but Ian’s dedication to the sound and to the preparation of the Opera Chorus has remained a constant throughout his years here.

“The glorious sound of the Chorus is the result of his work. We are always ready for anything a conductor or director throws at us, in any style and in any tempo. Ian has shaped our Chorus with his ear, his hard work, his attention to detail, and his humor. It has been a tremendous honor to be part of ‘Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus.’”

Ian Robertson conducting
Ian Robertson conducting San Francisco Opera at Stern Grove, 1988 | Credit: Lauré Campbell/San Francisco Opera

The Dundee native’s journey from Scottish Opera to San Francisco began at the suggestion of both his predecessor here, Richard Bradshaw (who went on to head the Canadian Opera Company), and John Pritchard, San Francisco Opera’s first music director.

Robertson arrived here soon after the difficult transition from Kurt Herbert Adler (with whom he worked a few times) to McEwen and took up initial residence in the Sunset, wondering about “houses so close to each other, all the overhead wires, and confusing traffic.” Moving to the Richmond and eventually to Marin, Robertson and his family became resolutely “local.”

Over the years, he also received the Messiaen Prize for his work on the 2002 American premiere of Saint François d’assise and, in 2012, the Opera Medal, San Francisco Opera’s highest honor.

And now for the statements customary on such an occasion, but in this case with extra warmth and sincerity. First from Shilvock:

“For 35 seasons, Ian Robertson has been a pillar of tremendous artistic strength at San Francisco Opera. He has guided and shaped the sound and musicality of the San Francisco Opera Chorus with insightful leadership.

“It has been an absolute joy to work alongside Ian. I am particularly happy that, in the past few years, we have been able to institute an annual Chorus Concert that Ian has curated and led with impeccable finesse and the finest quips in his commentary. This year’s concert will be a wonderful summation of the extraordinary artistic journey Ian has taken here, a journey that we have all been the richer for sharing with him.”

Robertson receiving the SF Opera Medal in 2012
Robertson receiving the SF Opera Medal in 2012, after a performance of Attila | Credit: Cory Weaver

Music Director Eun Sun Kim, who worked with Robertson during her 2019 company debut conducting Dvořák’s Rusalka, said: “It has been lovely to work with Ian, and I’m so glad we can celebrate his retirement with our new production of Fidelio in October. This is such a wonderful opera for the Chorus, and it will be a fitting coda to Ian’s storied history with San Francisco Opera.”

Robertson’s own statement:

As I reach retirement, I would like to thank San Francisco Opera for the honor and privilege of working with the superbly talented members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus and with the entire company in all its artistic and technical disciplines. It has been a lifetime journey for me which has been rewarding in so many ways. I have seen exciting changes and developments over the years, and have witnessed so many inspirational moments during rehearsals and performances at this great company. I’ve been so fortunate to have collaborated with its four music directors and many fine stage directors and artists. I wish the Opera continued success in its mission to present the very best of international opera.”

Scheduled for Dec. 11 and 12, Opera Chorus concerts in the Atrium Theater will be conducted by Robertson to honor his tenure — his choice to work even then.

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