HU Soprano Nicole Robinson Sings a Lead Role in Benjamin Britten Opera
New Mexico Highlands University soprano Nicole Robinson was part of a cast that received standing ovations in February for Santa Fe and Albuquerque performances of the 1964 Benjamin Britten opera Curlew River.
Britten called Curlew River a “parable for church performance” and both productions were staged in First Presbyterian Churches.
“There’s nothing else like singing on stage,” Robinson said. “You have to be consumed by what you’re doing to make it work. It’s exhilarating to have people in the audience say afterwards that they connected with the music and the performance.”
Robinson, a 21-year-old junior majoring in vocal performance, joined her music professor and voice coach Andre Garcia-Nuthmann on stage along with music graduate Devin Barad.
The Britten opera was a production of Canticum Novum, a nationally-acclaimed Santa Fe vocal and instrumental ensemble, with Kenneth Knight as the musical director. Campbell Martin was the artistic director for the production.
Garcia-Nuthmann, who heads the choral music program at Highlands and played the lead role in Curlew River, said the directors wanted a boy soprano for the Spirit of the Boy role. He recommended that they audition Robinson instead.
“We call Nicole’s voice type a coloratura, the highest soprano voice that exists,” Garcia-Nuthmann said. “Her voice is very beautiful, clean and pristine. I’m convinced that’s what impressed the musical director when she auditioned.”
Garcia-Nuthmann added that after her performance in Curlew River, Knight said he’s interested in working with Robinson again.
Robinson said Curlew River featured unusual, intriguing music.
“The music in this Benjamin Britten opera is obscure, with a haunting, eerie feeling to it,” Robinson said. “The show itself is very moving, even wrenching. It’s essentially a mystery about a mother trying to find her kidnapped son.
“I am that son and she finally finds me at my grave. My spirit role was actually uplifting because my character helped his grieving mother regain her sanity, and a sense of closure.”
Robinson said most of the opera takes place on a ferry and at a riverside, where the Curlew birds sing. Dramatic masks donned by the lead characters like Robinson added to the eerie, atmospheric mood.
Music critic James Keller of the Santa Fe New Mexican reviewed the opera: “It makes substantial vocal demands from its principals. Tenor Andre-Garcia Nuthmann conveyed deep expressivity in the role of the Madwoman. Bass Devin Barad (the Traveler) and soprano Nicole Robinson (the Spirit of the Boy) fully supported the clearly centered conception of this production.”
“I think everyone in this opera performance did an outstanding job, and Devin’s bass voice really shone in this role — it just boomed out,” Robinson said. “Andre gave people chills down their spines with his musical phrasing and his character’s intense emotions.”
Robinson said the faculty in the Department of Music goes out of its way to help give her learning and performing opportunities in the professional world, and in college.
She says this means a lot to a person who grew up in the tiny town of Franklin in east Texas, part of a high school graduating class of 63.
Robinson sang in the Nat Gold Players production of The Fantasticks, a musical comedy. She was also part of the cast for RENT, a joint production of Highlands University and the United World College — USA.
While at Highlands, Robinson has gained stage experience singing in musicals presented by the university’s Performing Arts Club.
Looking ahead to life after Highlands, Robinson plans to audition for the master’s program at Arizona State University.
“ASU has an outstanding vocal performance program, with both classical training for opera and musical theatre training. I like both,” Robinson said.