Opera Scotland

Tenor John Robertson reflects on his long career

Posted 6 Oct

Opera Scotland met recently with tenor John Robertson.  John is well remembered by many lovers of opera in Scotland both for his solo performances and later as a regular member of the chorus.  He was also a frequent presence on the concert platform.  As a young singer, he sang for both the Glasgow and Edinburgh Grand Opera Societies, and was one of those called up to the extra chorus when Sadler's Wells toured Scotland in the late fifties.  He particularly recalls being part of the final chorus when Fidelio was performed in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1959, conducted by Colin Davis.  Later he became a principal with Scottish Opera. and as late as spring this year (2013) he performed in the chorus in Scottish Opera's Flying Dutchman.

At the time we met, John was suffering from a bad cold, but his passion for opera still came over clearly. 

What was your first experience of opera?

The first opera I ever saw was The Barber of Seville with Sesto Bruscantini at the Edinburgh Festival in 1955. The production came direct from Glyndebourne and I was in the front row at the King's Theatre; it was a great experience for me.  Ian Wallace was singing Bartolo. I was naturally thrilled to sing on the same stage with Bruscantini when he sang Falstaff with Scottish Opera in 1976 - he was a nice man.  The following year I saw The Magic Flute staged by the Hamburg Opera - I was still at school of course.  I went up from Galashiels on the train - soon it will be possible to do that again!  I didn't know the opera, and I remember thinking during the trial by fire and water that I'd miss my train back.

How did your singing career start?

I studied maths at Edinburgh University, got a BSc and went into industry. My father wanted me to, said it was a good career. I did amateur work with Glasgow Grand and then Edinburgh Grand and I was a founder member of the Festival Chorus.  Arthur Oldham selected me to sing solos during rehearsals. So I'd done a lot of work for him and I never had to do an audition for Alex as I'd already sung a lot for him as well.  I was in the big amateur chorus for Otello in 1963 and went on to sing Roderigo when it was revived the following year.

A lot of people don't actually know what a singer sounds like up close, from six or eight feet away.  As Roderigo I was six feet downwind of Peter Glossop and Charlie Craig.  People don't pay enough attention to the sound of a voice.  Leonard Hancock was a great influence in the early years.  He said "The first thing people respond to is something that comes straight from the heart and goes to them."  Antonio Pappano said recently in a television interview that his father was a voice teacher and not a singing teacher - we don't make that distinction enough.

You didn't study music at college? How did you learn?

I used to stand in the wings all the time. I remember watching John Shaw, Janet Baker and others - you learned all the time.  Once I had a cold and was deputed to be prompter, so I could watch Nicolai Gedda  at close quarters from the prompt box - what an experience! I think intensity of experience is a great thing. I saw a great comprimario in 1963 in a Festival performance of Adriana Lecouvreur - Piero de Palma.  He walked on stage and had only one line to sing but everybody was watching him.  He had such presence. 

You have to be very centred.  It's not my business to look at the audience, I'm the character.

What do you think of the opera world now?

It's very hard for young singers now.  For a good few years, I never worked for fewer than 35 weeks a year with Scottish Opera. There's no consistency of employment now.  We were doing ten or twelve shows a season.  I was learning one, rehearsing one and singing one, all at the same time.

You had quite a work schedule at times?

We'd finished the season in Glasgow, the last show being Rosenkavalier. We went to Newcastle for a week and I did two Rosenkavaliers and two Falstaffs.  We dropped the Falstaff and came to Edinburgh for three indigestible weeks of opera.  I sang on the Tuesday night in Rosenkavalier, Wednesday Bartered Bride, Thursday Rosenkavalier, Friday Rape of Lucretia, Saturday Turn of the Screw, Sunday the dress rehearsal of Midsummer Night's Dream, Tuesday Midsummer Night's Dream, Wednesday Midsummer Nights Dream, Thursday Rosenkavalier, Friday a concert in East Kilbride.  The following week we did two Butterflies, two Mastersingers and were re-rehearsing Mary, Queen of Scots for one performance in Stuttgart.  Walk in, see the costume, put it on and sing it.  I don't think anyone gets that experience  nowadays.

Thanks very much, John and we hope we can hear more another time.

Listen to the clip below where he reminisces about Glasgow Grand Opera. Read more about his remarkable career here.

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