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Music Pages

Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson tackles her first bel canto role

20 January 2014

Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson
Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson(Photo: Mark Whitehouse)

The British soprano Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson has a passion for playing opera's baddies. She discusses her forthcoming debut as Donizetti's feisty heroine Norina in a new Scottish Opera production of Don Pasquale.

You studied Land Economy as an undergraduate - quite an unusual choice for a musician! Did you always hope to become a singer, or was there a watershed moment that prompted you to switch career paths?

I have always loved singing, particularly out the window as a child to scare people, but growing up it never really occurred to me that it could become a career!  At 18 I didn't really know anything about the business, and I didn't think studying singing would be helpful for me at that time. I really enjoyed doing my Land Economy degree, and I also got involved in the Cambridge University Operatic Society. This really opened my eyes and made me start to think about training properly. I ended up getting a job with HSBC when I graduated, but after getting offered a place at the Royal Academy of Music I decided to have a go at that instead!

Who or what have been the most important influences on you during your years of training to be a singer?

My singing teacher, Lillian Watson, and my coach, Audrey Hyland, influenced me the most during my four years at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM). They closely mentored my repertoire and performance every week, gave me the confidence to put it all into action on stage and encouraged me to perform in various concerts, auditions and competitions. Lillian steered me towards Garsington Opera, which gave me my first professional role as Papagena; as you can imagine I was thrilled!

The overall training I received at the RAM was really holistic and I was given some fantastic opportunities. The most significant for me were the Song Circle concerts at London’s Wigmore Hall headed by Richard Stokes, the Kohn Foundation Bach Cantata Series conducted by Iain Ledingham, and the RAM’s opera productions under Jane Glover, directed by John Ramster. My time there enabled me to become a professional singer and I feel lucky to have such a supportive foundation. It was really daunting leaving in 2012 as I had been in education since I was four!

Aside from the RAM I participated in a Samling course, where the teachings of Sir Thomas Allen, Roger Vignoles and Patricia MacMahon had a huge impact on me. It was an intense and thought-provoking opportunity, and I came away with a lot of new ideas. I went on to sing Papagena at Scottish Opera with Sir Thomas Allen directing, which was of course a wonderful experience.

You've been the recipient of quite a few awards. How significant has this support been in helping you to develop as an artist?

Extremely significant! Once leaving college you still need a support network, but everything costs money: lessons, coaching, scores, travel, audition and competition costs, recordings, publicity material … the list goes on! To fund all of this on top of the general costs of life can often be impossible. I'm particularly grateful for the Leonard Ingrams Award from Garsington Opera, which I am using for language training and European audition costs, and the John Scott award from Scottish Opera which has enabled me to continue my singing lessons.

Turning to Scottish Opera's new Don Pasquale, what aspects of the role of Norina are you most looking forward to?

Firstly, I absolutely love the music! I’m really excited about singing my first bel canto role, and have enjoyed exploring the lovely legato passages with the florid coloratura over the past few months. Norina essentially shows three ‘characters’ during the opera: her true self, the sweet girl from the convent and the hellish madam. I love her gutsy, intelligent nature, and am having great fun in rehearsals at the moment exploring all these aspects of her character with director Renaud Doucet.  My teacher Lillian Watson has performed Norina several times, and she has given me some brilliant insight into the role. I also feel really privileged to be working with some amazing colleagues.

Norina is quite a feisty, cunning character who always manages to get her own way. Is she someone you admire, or do you think her treatment of Don Pasquale in any way reprehensible?

Although she’s acting primarily in the interests of herself and Ernesto, I think Norina cares about Don Pasquale and never actually means him any harm. She does get a bit carried away in her quest during Act III and she realises that she has gone too far, but I think that is a feature of her fiery and passionate temperament. I do admire her determination and ingenuity, and since the events take place over a short space of time Don Pasquale is not subject to the charade for too long. It’s all for his own good!

What other kinds of roles do you enjoy playing, and why?

Baddies! My favourite so far has been the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute. Although there is always vulnerability to be found, I love the physical and vocal strength that comes with this role. The same goes for Zhou in Sir Peter Maxwell Davies Kommilitonen!, which we premiered at the RAM. You can be a bit crazy and quirky on stage, and I find that letting go in this way makes the music much easier, and more fun, to sing!  

What are the challenges that you face, personally, as you make your way as an opera singer? Do you have a 'life philosophy' that motivates you?

I need to be on the ball, ready to audition and with music prepared most of the time, because opportunities often surface at very short notice. With all the travelling that a career as a singer demands I think it’s really important to stay healthy and rested. My husband, the Icelandic bass-baritone Andri Björn Róbertsson, is much better at this than me, so he keeps me on the right track! Remaining determined through the stiff competition is also essential, as is having a life and devoting time to family and friends.

  • Scottish Opera’s Don Pasquale will receive four performances in Glasgow between 24 January and 1 February. The production will also tour to Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre from 18 to 22 February.

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