Text and photo by Ted Regencia
CHICAGO — At eight, he knows his checkmates, gambits and rooks. At 10, he was already crunching numbers and competing in Math Olympiads. At 13, he still rides his scooter like other boys his age, battles dragons, and explores treacherous dungeons in many an online games. He’s also a certified performer at the world-renowned Chicago Lyric Opera.
Robert Keith is the first of two children of Dr. Annabelle Santos and Atty. Keith Volgman. Robert’s mom, who hails from Marikina, happens to be the cardiologist of Oprah Winfrey, while his dad is President and CEO of Northpoint Capital. Robert has a sister, 9-year old Caroline. With that kind of kinfolks, it’s painless to reckon that excellence runs in the blood.
This March, Robert will once again display one of his many talents, as he takes the stage and performs in the operatic fare, Carmen. He will be singing alongside top opera sensation Denyce Graves, Vincenzo La Scola and another Filipino-American, Tenor Rodell Rosel, who was profiled by PINOY Newsmagazine last year.
During the late part of 2005, young actor Robert, who by virtue of his looks and a 5’7” build could give Haley Joel Osment a run for his money, debuted the role of a kid-soldier at the Lyric. He sat down with PINOY and discussed what it is like to be 13 and be so full of promise.
Full of energy
Well, not really sat down. When we first met, Robert was an image of full-throttle energy, deftly maneuvering his scooter along the concrete pavement in front of their expansive home, in the affluent neighborhood of Lincoln Park in Chicago. While unmistakably privileged, there was no hint of self-importance or haughtiness with this kid, who was plainly dressed in a loose shirt and baggy pants. Later, in the middle of the interview, he would alternately run around or even hang like a gymnast on the door jam. Rest assured, notwithstanding the show of acrobatic vitality, he managed to answer our questions thoughtfully.
Robert disclosed that his stint with the Lyric Opera happened by a twist of fate. He was auditioning for a spot with the Chicago Children’s Choir when the offer was made. It so happened that the choir director also works for the historic opera house. Impressed by the quality of Robert’s voice, the director offered him a role in Bizet’s Carmen, which many critics say is the most famous of all operas in the world.
Excited and proud
Being a long-time patron of Lyric Opera, the Volgman household was thrilled to no end. We first learned of Robert’s performance from his visibly excited mom, Dr. Annabelle Volgman, in an interview late summer of last year.
“We’ve been going to the Lyric Opera for many years now, and to learn that Robert is performing there is very exciting,” Dr. Volgman said.
Growing in high culture, Robert also developed interest in the opera, perhaps not typical of an 8th-grader. Matched with his natural talent in singing, a skill that his mom jokingly admitted she does not have, Robert took the challenge, opening the door, and might we add, raising the curtain for his introduction to a very lofty stage.
While not a major role, Robert’s part is no less vital. More so, it opens a new possibility for this young Filipino American, should he decide to be a Don Giovanni, or the Venetian general Othello at the Lyrics’ future productions.
“It’s pretty exciting to be onstage in front of all those thousands of people watching you,” Robert said. “And I don’t usually get nervous during the performances,” he added.
As for his cool demeanor, it must be his training at Latin School of Chicago that brings about composure and confidence, minus the behavior of self-importance. Yes, Robert goes to the same school where U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, Senator Adlai Stevenson and former first lady Nancy Reagan graduated.
But it’s not all work for Robert, and with all that serious stuff he is doing, he doesn’t look or act nerdy at all. Outside the academic confines, Robert also involves himself in sports activities such as tennis and cross-country. He has since given up competitive chess, but he still exercises his brain cells a lot with a dose of Sudoku, the latest craze in numbers game. Speaking of numbers, he is one not to shrink when confronted with algorithms and Matrix. He is a Math olympian after all. Only last February 4, Robert went to the University of Illinois at Chicago to participate in the regional MATHCOUNTS competition.
Robert also plays the violin. During the interview, this fiddler showed us some moves, while his sister Caroline tinkered with the piano. To top it off, Robert also knows his World of Warcraft, an interactive game on the Internet.
“And I do a lot of singing,” he added. Who knows, if you give him a magic microphone and a karaoke songbook, he could even belt out a mean version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, after all he has Filipino genes running in his blood.