HomeArticlesArts & CultureMusicThe Hinterland is alive with the sound of opera

Jenna Robertson in concert with Willoughby Symphony Orchestra Sydney 2020. Image credit: Rosa Doric

The Hinterland is alive with the sound of opera

Kate Veling & Christine Sharp | August 2020

Performer and creative producer, Jenna Robertson, became a Gold Coast local fairly recently, but already feels a deep connection to her adopted home. It’s a relationship she’s exploring through a unique art form – contemporary opera.

Before she relocated to the Gold Coast almost three years ago, opera singer, artist and creative producer, Jenna Robertson, was based in Sydney but travelling frequently with her busy performance and production schedule. The Scottish born soprano had left a successful career in chemical engineering to pursue her passion in the arts. Finding a home in the hinterland felt like a respite.

“Sydney was very busy and expensive. Coming to the Gold Coast, especially the hinterland, I felt like I could exhale,” she recalls. “When I first moved here, I was still away a lot of the time and when I came home it was my chance to rest and recover. There’s this sense of belonging that I have almost never felt before.”

Not long after landing in her new home city, Jenna was a successful applicant to the City of Gold Coast Producer Placement Program. With her prior experience performing in and producing operas in WA, Jenna was well placed to be matched with Queensland Music Festival, working in the producing team of Opera at Jimbour and with the Festival Directors on outcomes reporting as part of the 2019 program.

It was a big year for Jenna’s creative development, as she was also granted a place in Generate GC – a development program where artists are encouraged to take risks, expand their practice, develop concepts and connect with audiences through the creation of work that speaks to its place, environment and community. It is an initiative by the City of Gold Coast delivered in partnership with the internationally acclaimed program Situate – Art in Festivals.

“The artists on the program are really inspiring, amazing people to be around and the mentors they’ve brought in for us are operating at the top level in this country and internationally,’ she says. “Just spending time with those people has literally opened my mind and changed the way I think, changed the way I see my work.”

It’s resulted in her creative practice taking a new direction. “A new vein which I’m really loving is being a lead artist in the development of new work,” she reflects. “That’s been the journey – the performing and interpreting characters onstage and then the creativity in producing events has lead me to a point where I’m really interested in exploring my voice as an artist more deeply. Part of that has been community engagement, which has meant interviewing members of the community where I live. The goal of Generate GC is to create site specific work, which means it’s inspired by and responds to one particular place. In my project it’s the hinterland.”

Jenna is just completing the research and development phase of the project. The night before the second Artist Lab for Generate GC, Jenna was evacuated from her home in Lower Beechmont as the bushfires encroached on the community. “Fire was on my mind all the way through that lab and there’s been a lot of conversations in the community about fire and the recovery from that so that’s really fed into my project,”

“Generate has been an amazing opportunity as it’s really allowing me to understand my voice as an artist and also deepening my connection to this place in a really beautiful way. For me, it’s about the sense of belonging and what that means. I feel this enormous sense of belonging to a place I’m not from. I’m not from Australia, I’m not from GC – I’m a migrant. I’ve been diving into that, which has lead me to researching colonisation. It’s been fascinating and devastating.”

“This is my first original work which will be an opera and dance work called Spirit Orphan. As an opera singer it’s really unusual because we usually come to a work and it’s already been written by someone a very long time ago. So it’s contemporary opera.. and this is potentially where I see my career going. To put all this together and work towards creating contemporary opera that might have an impact on the evolution of the art form.”

Jenna is conscious of the fact that opera isn’t a mainstream musical preference, especially for the younger generation but she hopes to make people curious and open their minds to her art form. But she stresses that opera should be experienced, not just heard.

“I think one of the most incredible things about hearing an operatic voice is experiencing it live,” she says. “The way that the voice is produced and the types of stories opera tells – high drama, high stakes, deeply moving – is visceral. The way that live performance of opera affects the person who’s experiencing it – it can only be felt. It’s almost like it changes the vibration of the cells in your body and there’s a physical response. Just go and listen to some! There’s a lot of digital stuff out there but it’s not the same as feeling an opera singer’s voice.”

If Jenna has her way, there’ll be more opportunities for Gold Coast locals to experience it for themselves. She’s dedicated to her artistic practice and working hard to develop her voice, her process and her performance, with many projects in the works.

She’s about to start a residency funded by Arts Queensland with Gold Coast composer Corrina Bonshek to work on the the music for Spirit Orphan. Jenna’s also one of 20 Australian arts leaders to be selected as part of the Australia Council Future Leaders cohort – a competitive professional development opportunity that will enhance her skills and capabilities, develop her networks and provide a platform for growth.

She has just received federal funding for the first time for La Traviata in Albany, WA; a community-engaged opera project she is producing and singing the title role, and will make her debut as a soloist at the Brisbane Music Festival in September.

As multi-talented multitasker in the arts, Jenna is certainly one to watch. With a level of passion that is inspirational, she remains intent on diversifying her practice to fulfil her creative vision, and to keep her challenged, stimulated and growing as an artist and as a human.

The City’s investment in arts and culture is reaping rewards. We’re becoming a place where artists, performers and arts industry workers are excited to call home and a destination cultural tourists are keen to explore. The Gold Coast is gaining a reputation for being a creative city.

To support the development of creative practitioners and arts workers on the Gold Coast, the City offers motivated individuals the opportunity to undertake a broad range of professional development activity accelerating their career opportunities. Visit our website to find out more.

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