Pacific alumna Irene Roberts reaches high note in lead role in San Francisco opera

Irene Roberts in "Cosi fan tutte"

Irene Roberts as Dorabella in "Cosi fan tutte" (Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

Conservatory of Music alumna Irene Roberts ’06, an internationally renowned opera star, is back in the state where her rising career started.

The mezzo-soprano is performing with the San Francisco Opera, the second-largest opera company in North America, as one of the leads in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” running through Dec. 3.

Roberts has the role of Dorabella in the romantic comedy—this time set in the 1930s—about best friends testing their fiances’ fidelity.

“I'll be really sad once the shows are over,” Roberts said. “We don't always get paired with such a great team on both sides of the stage—singers on one side and then the conductor, the director and everybody on the production team. We just got so lucky with this one.”

They could say the same about her. 

“Irene is a stunningly beautiful and absolutely vivacious Dorabella,” Artistic Managing Director Greg Henkel said. “She sails through the most challenging moments of the role with aplomb and an infinite reserve of voluptuous tone.”

While Roberts is used to performing on stages around the world, this venue has a special place in her heart. The opera house is just down the road from her hometown of Sacramento and University of Pacific where she attended as an undergraduate. 

Her time at Pacific

While Roberts has always loved singing (songs from “Sleeping Beauty” were a favorite growing up), she hadn’t thought of it as a career until a parent’s friend suggested she look into Pacific’s conservatory. 

She only had a month of voice lessons before auditioning and her experience with opera was mainly limited to Bugs Bunny cartoons and commercials. 

“I came in pretty green. I barely knew how to pronounce any Italian,” said Roberts.

It didn’t take her long to stand out, though. 

Professor of Opera James Haffner distinctly remembers the moment he knew she had something special during a student production of “Orfeo ed Euridice.” 

“I remember sitting in the back of the house thinking, ‘that's really world class,’” said Haffner. 

Inspiring future students

Seeing Roberts’ growth and expertise is thrilling for Haffner. So, when the conservatory was looking for someone to bring in as its inaugural Lynelle F. Wiens master class clinician to speak to students, he knew she was a perfect choice. 

The program was founded by an anonymous donor to the conservatory school to honor Professor Wiens’ 42 years of teaching. Roberts was one of her students. 

[She] really set me up so beautifully, Roberts said. “If you start with a healthy foundation, with the right people in your corner, and the right people supporting you, then you're always going to have a healthy approach mentally and physically.”

In April, Roberts joined students via Zoom from her home in Berlin to share her stories and experiences.

One of the most important is that there isn’t one path to success. 

“I don't want to say I failed a lot, but I didn't get into all the places that I thought I was supposed to get into, and yet, I still found my path to achieving all the things that I've wanted to achieve so far,” Roberts said.

“The students still talk about it,” Haffner said. “Hearing from somebody firsthand who's in the trenches made a really big difference to the students.”

Ben Bliss and Irene Roberts in "Così fan tutte"

Ben Bliss as Ferrando and Irene Roberts as Dorabella in Mozart's "Così fan tutte." (Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

Singing around the world 

Her voice has since taken Roberts around the world, including Berlin where she is a member of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and currently lives with her family.  

The position allows her to perform a variety of roles and have more stability than most opera singers, something she values as a mom.  

“It's really a different life to be an opera singer and a mother,” Roberts said.

She’s already got more shows in the works in Berlin as well as stops in London and France next year, but for now, she’s enjoying her time back home.

“I'm so, so happy,” said Roberts. “Right now, I’m looking up at a perfectly blue sky. It’s so nice to be in California for so many reasons. To be with family and California is amazing.”

Things that make Roberts sing:

Favorite venue to perform in: San Francisco. That's loaded because I have such a great emotional attachment to the house, but I would have to say it's my favorite.

Favorite role: That’s tough. It changes. Ten years ago, it was Carmen. Right now, I would say Dorabella because I am so in love with what I'm doing right now.

Favorite opera: I love “Tristan und Isolde” by Wagner.

Best part of being an opera singer: The connection with people. When I sing and I'm on stage, I feel more open. Aside from my personal, private life with my kids, I feel more open than in any other setting. I feel so present in the moment.

Along with performing, I love: Aside from spending any free time with my kids and going to playgrounds, I have a goal of doing a triathlon next year and I’ve been a pretty avid cyclist for some years.