A high note for York: opera diva joins music faculty

Opera diva Catherine Robbin, right, is stepping onto a new stage in her life, with her appointment as assistant professor of classical vocal performance at York.

After a celebrated 30-year career as one of Canada’s best known and much loved mezzo-sopranos, Robbin has decided she wants to teach.

She’s had a taste of it as a part-time voice professor at York for the past three years and told the Toronto Star’s Robert Crew this spring, she has “absolutely fallen head over heels in love with it.”

In fact, she said she is obsessed. “I go to bed at night thinking about my students and I wake up in the morning thinking about how best to improve the program, how to make performance opportunities for them, how to solve the little technical difficulties that they may have run into.”

Phillip Silver, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, is enthusiastic about the appointment. “I’m very pleased that an artist of the international stature of Ms Robbin has agreed to share the benefits of her talent and knowledge with our students in York’s Department of Music,” he said.

In March 2002, Robbin directed her students in Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. It was the first time York’s Department of Music had ever produced a full-length opera performed by students. This spring, she directed Le Salon de Chant, a concert featuring 15 young singers performing arias and art songs by Mozart, Fauré, Puccini and Satie. And last fall, as part of the Music at Midday series, she herself graced York’s stage in Songs from Venus and Mars, a light-hearted musical homage to the battle between the sexes, with songs from Brahms to Bernstein.

Admired for her “firm, velvety” voice and her moving interpretations by fans such as Elissa Poole, whose farewell to Robbin was printed May 12 in The Globe and Mail, Robbin has established an international reputation, performing title roles in opera and concerts with many of today’s leading conductors.

Robbin is noted for her interpretations of Baroque and Romantic repertoire, especially lieder and oratorio. She has called Handel “the breadwinner of my career.” Early in her career, the Toronto-born singer attracted attention by winning major international competitions. Her many recordings have also won prizes such as the Grand Prix du Disque and been nominated for the Cannes Classical Awards.

Still at the top of her form, Robbin surprised many by her decision to retire. She told the Globe: “It would be a big fat lie if I said it had nothing to do with the voice. It won’t come as a shock to say that hormonal things happen to women’s voices at a certain age. I’m 52. I promised myself I wouldn’t sing past my sell-by date, and that feels to be right about now.”

Robbin has made a point of encouraging young singers. She has given master classes at universities all over Canada and at the Carmel Bach Festival in California. And she is president of the Canadian Aldeburgh Foundation, an organization that supports young Canadian artists performing at the Aldeburgh Festival in the UK, according to her publicist Caroline Phillips Management at www.caroline-phillips.co.uk/robbin.htm.

Right: Cover of one of Robbin’s CDs, Catherine Robbin in Recital

At York, vocal students have blossomed under her tutelage. Stefanie True, who graduated this year with a music degree, won many scholarships and “firsts” in vocal competition at several music festivals and successfully competed with 800 others for a spot in the prestigious Britten-Pears Young Artist Program in Aldeburgh, England.

CBC recorded Robbin’s farewell concert at Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto on May 12, 2003.

Prepared with notes from Brigitte Kleer, public relations and special projects manager for the Faculty of Fine Arts, and a Gazette story by Michael Todd, communications officer at York.