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Robin Allebach Knapp migrates home to Menahga

Robin Allebach Knapp vividly recalls announcing her aspirations to become an opera singer - as a Menahga fourth grader.

Although her vocal chords were still in the developmental phase and her rural upbringing was devoid the musical genre, intuition told her she was bound for the stage, entertaining audiences around the globe.

"Somehow I'd gotten it in my head," she recalls.

And the keyboard was calling. But piano lessons were financially infeasible for a family of 11 children. So at 10, she began investigating the ivories on her own.

After graduating from high school, teacher Ken Augst encouraging her talents, she headed off to college, graduating with the only music-related major available at the time - teaching.

"But I knew I wanted to sing," she said. "I'm not a classroom teacher."

Her sister, living in Chicago, suggested she head to the Windy City and look into enrolling at Northwestern University, considered to be one of the top musical institutions in the nation.

Evanston's "wealth, its prestige opened my eyes," Robin said of her "cloistered" upbringing.

She would gain an understanding of not just what it takes to be a singer, "but the world - how it works."

"When I graduated Northwestern (in the mid-'80s), that's when the real journey began," Robin said of her operatic calling, critics lauding her dramatic coloratura (soprano) voice.

A voice bestowed

Robin's biography catalogues a career with performances on stages worldwide - including Carnegie Hall - singing under the batons of "the world's foremost conductors."

"Ms. Allebach was met with wild bravas from the audience," a newspaper music critic reported of her title role as Bellini's Norma with Milwaukee Opera Theatre. "Look for her in the years to come on opera's main stages. She is a singing sensation."

Her voice "transcends the moment," another reviewer stated of her role as Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus. "It reminds us that a voice such as hers is not learned, but bestowed."

"It's God-given," Robin agrees, citing her facial structure. Huge cheekbones create a resonating cavity, a fuller face giving her more "capacity," she explained. And her "Germanic strong build, broad shoulders" add to the equation - "in combination with a great voice teacher," she said of New York's Arthur Levy.

Robin began tutelage with Levy 10 years ago, her instructor accepting only singers with "great promise."

"He's really the reason I have the voice I have today," she said.

America is home to great choral tradition, Robin explained. "But voices have to blend. In order to blend, I had to constrict my voice, hold it back.

"Up to 10 years ago, I was apologizing for the hugeness of my voice," she said.

"In a small room, my voice is not necessarily pretty. I need a theater and an orchestra."

Old friends meet again

"There were moments that were truly beautiful," she said of her operatic career. "But it became a rat race."

The "naive" northern Minnesotan found "egos of grand proportion at every level" of the profession. "Backstabbing" was commonplace. "It wasn't in me to be cutthroat."

Three summers ago, she returned home to sing at Hubbard United Methodist Church at the invitation of her parents, Clyde and Verna Allebach.

They'd suggested her old friend, Classic Chorale conductor and Sebeka music teacher Erich Knapp, accompany her on the piano. Pals in high school, she'd had no idea his feelings had exceeded friendship.

"We hadn't seen each other since college" - nearly two decades - "but it seemed like yesterday," she said. When he called, Robin recognized Erich's voice without introduction.

A couple of years went by and in the summer of 2005, Robin returned, accompanied by a male friend. That piqued Erich's interest.

Love letters were launched in cyberspace. "I knew the relationship would go quickly," Robin confided.

Initially, she'd had no intentions of leaving Chicago, where her operatic and teaching career were based. "But music was becoming a chore."

Robin was about to come full circle.

Composer in residence

"Returning to this community is a way to renew my joy in music," she said. "This was truly God's timing. I never thought I'd be back in Menahga. That was the last place on earth I thought I'd be."

Until Erich proposed marriage.

"Now I'm with my best friend, my composer in residence," she joked. "I wake up and see the garden and the lake and realize how hungry I'd been for natural beauty."

She admits there are moments when she misses the stage. "But life is a series of trade-offs."

Robin focuses now on sharing her gift with piano and vocal students, imparting what she's learned.

"Every voice is perfect unto itself because every voice is different," she explained. "Let your voice be natural," she advises. "Each has unique strengths and needs. My responsibility is to realize the potential and help students be the best singers they can be."

Erich and Robin now serve as co-ministers of music at First English Church in Menahga, a program they hope to build musically and spiritually.

Although battling a cold, Robin held the Classic Chorale audience spellbound with Erich's arrangement of "We Have Heard on High" this holiday season.

And they will be heading off together when the Classic Chorale begins its tour of Italy next summer, a destination held in high regard by Robin.

"I fell in love with Italy," she said. "Italy thrives on beauty and aesthetics. Italians have a passion for music, art, architecture, relationships, food - and the importance of eating together."

"There's Italian blood in me somewhere."

In harmony with a hound

At home in Menahga, the soloist often finds herself singing duet. Kirby, her Jack Russell-beagle mix adds a hearty tenor accompaniment.

Robin's sister had given her the dog when she was facing a difficult period in Chicago. Robin was not convinced a canine would cure her emotional distress, "but I went through the motions."

Three days later, as she was warming up her voice, Robin heard the pitter patter of dog feet, Kirby joining her in the operatic experience.

"That clinched the deal; we've been singing together ever since."