Hear opera music on your North Park walks? Meet the singer behind those porch concerts
Opera singer Victoria Robertson, a former Miss USO San Diego, does ‘Separate But Together’ concerts from her North Park porch. On Sunday, she focused on classics by Puccini for an appreciative audience that followed social distancing guidelines
San Diego Opera alum Victoria Robertson has sung on the flight decks of the USS John C. Stennis and USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carriers, at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, and at an air base in Thule, Greenland, 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
But until last Sunday, Robertson had never performed at what may be the most unlikely venue in her career so far — the 6-by-14-foot concrete balcony porch in front of her 1920s Craftsman home in North Park.
“I’ve rented this house for 17 years, and in all those 17 years, I’ve always wanted to have the guts to stand on my porch and just unleash my voice,” said the statuesque singer, who from 1998 to 2006 served as Miss USO San Diego. “But even though we (vocalists) give ourselves permission to do that on the stage, we’re often shy to do that in normal situations.”
With the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, normal situations are now few and far between for people in all walks of life.
That is why a week ago, on Easter Sunday, Robertson made her operatic singing debut from her porch on Villa Terrace, in North Park’s Morley Field neighborhood.
Standing 23 steps up from the sidewalk, she performed a mix of religious hymns and a favorite by Mozart and Beethoven. The response was so favorable that Robertson gave a second performance Sunday, billed as “Puccini at Noon.” Both clocked in at under 15 minutes and were warmly received.
“There were about 30 people last Sunday and at least 100 today, so I’m sure there will be more next week,” said Robertson’s next door neighbor, Jo McClenny, who sat in her front yard with her daughter, Amanda, and two friends.
“That’s why I keep my concerts short. I don’t want the police to come — ‘Opera singer creates havoc!’,” Robertson said, only half-joking.
Her social distancing-conscious “Separate But Together” concert Sunday featured arias — with pre-recorded orchestral accompaniment — from Puccini’s “Tosca,” “La bohème” and “Gianni Schicchi.”
Opera singer Victoria Robertson, a soprano, performed Sunday, April 19th, 2020 on the steps of her North Park home
‘Feels like a celebration’
She concluded her Puccini-dominated performance with Eduardo di Capua and Alfredo Mazzuchi’s “O sole mio.” Its third line — Pe’ ll’aria fresca pare già na festa (“The air is so fresh that it already feels like a celebration”) — seemed to capture the spirit of many of her all-ages listeners, even on a cool, cloudy day. They applauded and cheered, punctuated by a well-timed dog bark or two.
“Thank you for being here and letting me keep up my performance chops,” said Robertson, as she waved to the crowd. “Thank you, neighbors!”
Two of those neighbors, Derek Wilton and Loli Wescott, live a block away on Villa Terrace. They were attending Robertson’s now-weekly mini-concerts for the second Sunday in a row. After standing last week, when they happened upon her performance by chance, they brought lawn chairs this time and sat on a patch of grass across the street.
“We’ve never met her or heard her practice,” said Wilton, who described Robertson’s singing as “angelic.”
Wescott nodded, adding: “I had no idea she sang like that.”
Nearby, Ken Moser had a prime spot in his black Volkswagen convertible. He had parked, with the top down, directly in front of Robertson’s house.
“I drove here from Mira Mesa,” said Moser, one of Robertson’s voice students. “I live alone and work at home, and I was just going stir-crazy. It was great to be able to come and hear this today.”
A dramatic coloratura soprano, Robertson sang with impressive clarity and elan throughout, while admirably avoiding empty vocal pyrotechnics during her soaring cadenzas. Her strong, supple singing projects so well — without a microphone — that some of her listeners could enjoy her without leaving their homes.
“We could hear her really well and recognized the songs,” said Ellen Goodwin, who listened with her husband, Chris Collette, as they ate lunch on the porch of their home around the corner and a block away.
“It sounded beautiful,” Collette said. “Our neighbor, Dutch, walked over to Villa Terrace to hear her today. When he came back, he had a tear in his eye.”
Striking an emotional chord is a constant goal for Robertson. She earned a degree in visual arts from UC San Diego in 2001 and another in vocal performance from San Diego State University in 2009.
An imposing figure — the New Jersey native stands 6-foot-1 in her bare feet — Robertson sang in the San Diego Opera chorus from 1999 to 2014. She is the founder of VR Productions, which makes videos for the travel industry, and of Opera4Kids, a San Diego arts education nonprofit.
She is posting videos online of her free Sunday porch concerts, which she plans to continue doing until coronavirus social restrictions are eased.
“I’ve been keeping my porch concerts short, but now I’ll make them longer because I’m getting into it and people like them,” she said Sunday.
“The Easter Sunday concert was really emotional, because people felt suppressed. Today was more like a celebration. (With this pandemic), people don’t get to hear live music, so it’s really nice to do it.”
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