Nancy Edmonds Hanson
When Robin Allebach was growing up in Menahga, Minnesota, all she ever heard sung was hymns. Yet, at 10 or so, the tenth of 11 children in a preacher’s family began to dream of a future only she could imagine: She wanted to be an opera singer.
And she did.
Now retired from the stage in Chicago, Milwaukee and beyond, the coloratura soprano is bringing her love of bel canto – the Italian phrase for “beautiful singing” – to aspiring vocalists here from the tiny studio she has dubbed the Robin’s Nest Music Academy, a remodeled home on the north side of Moorhead.
Last week, seven of her high school and college students gathered for what she termed a “summer soiree.” On a beautiful late August evening, they serenaded neighbors from a simple stage in her back yard, thrilling not only parents and guests at the outdoor performance and reception, but neighbors up and down 16th Street North.
“Every voice is perfect and unique – small, large and in between. It’s just a matter of finding it,” the teacher proclaims. It’s a lesson she has been learning throughout her career, and a gospel she has carried forward for almost 15 years after returning to the area where she grew up. After 15 years on the music faculty of Valley City State University and private instruction of hundreds of young singers, she now teaches full time. Her youngest students are 13; her oldest, now in college.
Robin’s career took flight from the flimsiest of beginnings. “When I started school, my older brothers and sisters had convinced me that wearing glasses was most mortifying thing in the whole world,” she reminisces. “So I didn’t wear mine, and couldn’t see the blackboard or much of anything else. By third grade I was behind in learning. I couldn’t see the chalkboard! I thought I was stupid.”
It took the Menahga school’s music teacher, Ken Augst, to teach her the value of her voice. When an older sister home from college somehow brought up the musical stage, little Robin set her sights on the spotlight. Assigned in fourth grade to write that essay on “what I want to be when I grow up,” she told the world: “I want to be an opera singer.”
The path from rural Minnesota to the stage was less than clear. She graduated from Bemidji State University with a degree in music education, the closest she could come. “All I wanted to do was sing and perform,” she remembers. “But I didn’t have a clue how to get from A to B.”
While pursuing graduate studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, she did some solo work with small opera companies in the area. She eventually signed on with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, first as part of smaller ensembles and as an understudy for marquee performers.
As her presence grew, so did opportunity. Robin’s voice was part of the symphony’s soaring performances on three recordings that earned Grammy Awards. “I sang for three amazing conductors – Sir George Solti, James Levine and Zubin Mehta,” she says. “It was a fantastic time. The odd thing is, I didn’t think anything of it in the moment. Isn’t that sad? It just seemed that was life.”
She was teaching private lessons even then, a practice she would continue after moving to Fargo-Moorhead and being recruited as an assistant professor of music in Valley City. As recently as 2019 she was teaching a total of 45 students a week there and in her home here.
Then came Covid-19 and the special threat of singers’ heavy viral load. She turned to video. “For the first couple of weeks, I wondered, ‘How can we possibly do this?’ Then I learned some tricks to make it work. Sometimes, I think, it was even better. Students were so hungry for that personal connection.” She plans to continue offering some lessons online as an option for those who can’t come in person.
What was the high point of her professional career? She pauses, then cites singing the title role in Bellini’s “Norma” with the Milwaukee Opera Theatre. “I felt so good in my voice. After three hours on stage, I could have done three more,” she remembers. “If you’re singing well – the right music, the right tessitura (vocal range) – you’re in your happy place.”
While Robin’s first love is opera, she says good technique will carry her students through any style of singing, whether classical, musical theatre, country, pop or gospel. In her “soiree” last week, they demonstrated that. In another life, their teacher had sung outdoors herself at Ravinia, the famed summer residence of the Chicago Symphony. This was, she says, just as special … but in its own way.
For more information on Robin Allebach’s lessons and programs, search “Robin’s Nest Music Academy” on Facebook or call 218-443-3524.