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Kelly RobinsonBy Holly Harris
For Winnipeg mezzo-soprano Kelly Robinson, it took listening to her “still small voice” to ultimately discover her own.

And local opera buffs will get to hear those mellifluous vocals when the gifted singer appears as “Zita” in Manitoba Underground Opera’s latest production of Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” that opens this weekend.  
The four-show run that shares a double bill with the 19th century Italian composer’s “Suor Angelica” runs August 18, 23, 26, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, August 20, 2 p.m. at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, 256 Smith Street. For tickets or further information, visit: www.manitobaundergroundopera.com/home.html
“This opera is very much about family, with a good amount of dysfunction in it,” Robinson, who boasts a nearly three-octave range, says in a recent interview. “Zita is the matriarch and is very protective of her nephew. She calls the shots, and is a strong, feisty lady.” She also assures that the comic opera being sung entirely in Italian, sans surtitles, will not get, er, lost in translation. “Our director Suzanne Martin is incredibly creative, and we are so physical with our actions that people won’t have any trouble understanding the storyline,” she states of the 125-minute (including intermission) show that also features local Jewish singer/actor Elliot Lazar. (See more about Elliot on page 6.)
The company’s general manager/conductor Brendan McKeen, who cast Robinson in the show, is also looking forward to seeing her bring her character to life. “We’re delighted to have Kelly be a part of our production this month,” he states. “The combination of her warm, rich mezzo voice and her brilliant acting instincts is a rare find, as well as her sparkling comedic timing. Her depth of experience is inspiring to our younger performers as she has established herself as a leader within the cast.”

Growing up in Winnipeg’s fabled North End, Robinson’s flourishing singing career that now includes performances with the Manitoba Opera Chorus, Rainbow Stage, Little Opera Company, Dry Cold Productions, the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, a musical theatre concert for up-and-coming Jewish stars held at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue (organized by Debbie Maslowsky), as well as two fundraising events for the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre almost never happened. After moving “south” with her parents and younger brother at age eight, the now 30-something singer who currently resides in River Heights with her musician/teacher husband Josh Eskin and their two growing children only stumbled into singing after her drama teacher at Grant Park High School insisted that she audition for that year’s musical, “All About Cats”  - and got one of the plum lead roles.
“It totally surprised me because I didn’t think that I sang at all. My teacher thought I would become a singer because I projected so well when acting, but I told him that was crazy,” Robinson admits, a talented instrumentalist who also plays piano, flute, piccolo and alto sax, and incredibly also served double duty in the pit orchestra when not onstage. “I was shocked beyond shocked.”
However, despite dazzling audiences with her performance as a lead feline, Robinson, now taking voice lessons with local teacher Carolyn Mitchell, remained true to her other love at that time – sciences. She embarked on a rigorous four-year degree in microbiology at the University of Manitoba upon graduating from Grant Park, fully intent on realizing her childhood dream of becoming a dentist. Mitchell recalls those earliest years:  
“Kelly was a model student, because she learns quickly and knows exactly what she wants,” she says over the phone. “The thing that I’ve always felt most about Kelly is that she loves to perform. It’s in her blood, and I think she was born with that gene.”
While completing her practicum at the city’s National Microbiology Laboratory, a.k.a. the “Virology Lab” during her penultimate year of studies, Robinson suddenly realized that her true passion lay not in peering through microscopes, but poring over music scores. Her intuition told her to dramatically change course, despite being awarded full academic scholarships, and with the “carrot” of her own prestigious research lab dangled before her.  
“I’m a very sociable person, and I felt it was just me in a giant lonely lab with a big microscope,” the singer reveals. She made the gutsy decision to audition for the U of M’s Faculty of Music to further her training with Charlene Pauls (and later Lois Watson-Lyons), accomplishing the near-Herculean feat of simultaneously completing two, full four-year undergraduate degrees in seven years where she crammed studying music theory and history alongside molecular genetics.

During that same time, Robinson also took composition lessons with Michael Matthews, and even wrote a string quartet. “It was really neat, because I didn’t know that much about string instruments, and hearing it performed was inspiring,” she states. “I realized there were endless possibilities.”
Some of those “endless possibilities” have included recording an album of her pop and jazz works in 2004, as well as furthering her studies in pop/rock vocals and songwriting through Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Ironically, her husband of 13 years, whom she met while both were teaching at a St. Boniface music school, and is son of world-renowned nutritional scientist and 2016 Order of Canada recipient Michael Eskin, also studied guitar at that same institution.  
“I was nominated for an Independent Music Award for the Film/TV music category for my song, “My Arrival,” included in a film called Just Arrived, documenting recent immigrants’ experience moving from Macedonia to Canada,” Robinson adds.  

There likely are not many opera singers who once rocked out in bars. However, the versatile artist who professes a “big, belt sound” also performed lead vocals in local “Indie” band Thrift Store Love, making appearances on local TV shows and at fundraising events, as well as regular weekend gigs at Osborne Village’s “Ozzy’s” bar between 2012 – 2013. That she did all this while six months pregnant with her now-four-year old son never fazed her once, as a testament to her high-energy drive and determination. “My husband Josh used to be a touring musician in a rock band, and thought it was kind of cool,” she shares. “We have a really great relationship because we both respect what each other does.”
One of her all-time favourite roles is “Mad Margaret” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Ruddigore,” presented by the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Winnipeg this spring. In fact, the perennial Victorian operettas performed by many a Glee Club holds a special place in her heart, with Robinson even awarded the Winnipeg Music Festival’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society Trophy in 2002, appearing with her now Toronto-based cousin Shayne Robinson.
“I was raised on ‘G & S,’” she explains. “My Zaida, Harold King was my first introduction to live singing, and performed the lead role in “The Pirates of Penzance.’ When I was a kid, he sang all the time, and I had the entire score completely memorized by age six.”
Another thrilling highlight proved to be performing side-by-side with Watson-Lyons during the Little Opera Company’s “Almost Opera!” annual recital this spring. Robinson still goes to her revered teacher for the odd coaching session, speaking with palpable appreciation for her wisdom and guidance.
Watson-Lyons also sings praises for her former protégé. “Kelly has a lovely, warm mezzo timbre to her voice, which is a reflection of her lovely, warm personality,” she reveals in an email. “She is effective as an actress because she’s not afraid to make herself vulnerable, and she knows how to enter into whatever role she’s portraying,” she adds. “Kelly is such a gracious and thoughtful person to perform with, and is a wonderful asset to the musical culture of Manitoba.”  
As if coming full circle, Robinson herself has grown into a sought-after private voice instructor, with her own students now discovering their own artistic voices. It’s also no coincidence that both female lead roles in her alma mater’s high school musical this spring, “Mary Poppins” were proud, Robinson pupils.

When not performing onstage, teaching, adjudicating at provincial music festivals, or composing, Robinson is a crackerjack crocheter, makes jewelry, and adores spending quality time with her young family (and three cats). But there’s yet another (not so) “secret” talent she admits to – that of yenta.   
“I’m a matchmaker,” she says with a chuckle. “My friends have told me that I should start a service, as I’ve fixed up several couples that are now in long term or married relationships. I seem to have a knack for helping people find their soul mates.”
Robinson  - who believes her surname was originally either “Robinsohn”or “Rubinstein” - is also the first to admit that many people are surprised to hear she’s Jewish. Robinson speaks Hebrew fluently thanks to being in the former Hebrew bilingual programs at Centennial School and Sir William Osler, as well as going to shul at Bnay Abraham. She regularly attends High Holy Days services with her now retired parents at Shaarey Zedek, but did not have a Bat Mitzvah, pleading – surprisingly – stage fright as a young girl. Fast forward several decades later, and Robinson clearly loves being onstage, eagerly looking forward to her MUO debut to share her passion for music with her growing fans.
“I’ve always had that inner conviction that this is what I wanted to do, and didn’t want to be 70 years old and wonder, ‘What if,’” the gracious artist replies when asked if she harbours any regrets choosing a singing career over the more clearly defined healthcare profession. “I think it’s so important to find your own voice, and be true to who you are. To me, music is such a creative outlet, and I love it so much that I can’t imagine doing anything else.”


Holly Harris writes for Opera Canada and Opera Today, and is looking forward to seeing Manitoba Underground Opera’s four different productions being staged this month.