Men of the SF Opera Chorus
Men of the SF Opera Chorus | Credit: Matthew Washburn

SF Opera Chorus Director Ian Robertson, who retires at the end of the year, is rehearsing the company’s upcoming production of Così fan tutte, and getting ready to lead the chorus in two concerts, on Dec. 11 and 12 in the Atrium Theater of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera. The capacity of the venue for this configuration is 162, and both concerts are sold out already.

The events are capping Robertson’s career of 35 seasons, 375 productions, and over 2,000 performances at the helm of the Chorus. How long ago did Robertson became the leader of the Chorus? In 1986, the Dow Jones closed at $1,895, the average cost of a new house was $90,000, average monthly rent was $385, and a gallon of gas sold at 89 cents. That long ago.

SF Opera commissioned Oakland-based composer Cava Menzies to create a new work in honor of Robertson for these concerts. Along with the world premiere of Menzies’s Invitation to Love, the concerts will feature the music of a dozen composers from Bach to Jennifer Higdon.

Ian Robertson
San Francisco Opera Chorus Director Ian Robertson | Credit: Kristen Loken

Especially noteworthy are excerpts from Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Te Deum, “Endless Pleasure” from Handel’s Semele, choruses from Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini operas, and “Baïlèro” from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne.

Asked about the program for the concerts, Robertson told SF Classical Voice:

It’s a great pleasure to showcase the artists of the SF Opera Chorus in a concert featuring a wide range of choral styles and some off the beaten path repertoire. We’re very accustomed to performing on the opera house stage in full costume, so it’s a refreshing change to be in concert mode for this event.

Baroque era choruses by Charpentier, JS Bach, and Handel are a great opportunity for the Opera Chorus to relish the purity of texture and line in this style. The not-to-be-resisted music and wit of Jacques Offenbach shows up in excerpts from his operetta La Belle Hélène while the French theme continues with one of Joseph Canteloube’s orchestrally sumptuous Songs of the Auvernge in an arrangement the composer made for chorus. In French, too, are Maurice Ravel’s colorful and moving Trois Chansons written during World War I. It’s a cappella chamber music style and the carefully crafted intimate setting of the composer’s own text will be a special treat for the audience.

It’s also exciting to explore contemporary settings, which bring challenges and rewards in terms of vocal flexibility and color in works such as Gabriela Lena Frank’s Two Mountain Songs, and Cava Menzies’s Invitation to Love which will receive its world premiere at the concert. We’re looking forward to having Cava’s insights when she visits our rehearsals this month to refine and polish her new creation.

And after the enforced COVID-19 hiatus, it’s wonderful to include memorable opera chorus ‘hits’ by composers such Verdi and Puccini to add to the eclectic mix of the program. Of course, it’s never too much to include a couple of Mozart choruses. Finally, it’s so special to be able to feature individual artists from the Opera Chorus in solo moments sprinkled throughout the program.”

Ian Robertson conducting the San Francisco Opera Chorus
Ian Robertson conducting the San Francisco Opera Chorus in the Atrium Theater | Credit: Matthew Washburn

The soloists from the Chorus Robertson mentioned are:

Sopranos Kathleen Bayler, Sara Colburn, Clare Demer, Claire Kelm, Angela Moser, Jesslyn Thomas
Mezzo-sopranos Elizabeth Baker, Silvie Jensen, Courtney Miller, Whitney Steele
Tenors Michael Belle, Alan Cochran, Michael Jankosky, Philip Pickens, Chester Pidduck, Andrew Truett
Baritones William Bryan, Mitchell Jones
Basses Wilford Kelly, William O’Neill