Merola Opera Program Has High Hopes for Its 63rd Season

Janos Gereben on March 26, 2020
Merola Opera Program’s 2018 Il re pastore, with Charles Sy, Cheyanne Coss (half hidden), Patricia Westley, Zhengyi Bai, and Simone McIntosh | Credit: Kristen Loken

Assuming that the COVID-19 crisis resolves in time, the 63rd San Francisco Merola Opera Program will take place July 9 – Aug. 22. The Merola training program and summer festival returns with a new group of 29 rising opera stars for Merola Artistic Director Sheri Greenawald’s 19th and final season at the helm.

The 2020 Merola Summer Festival showcases this year’s 29 Merola artists, selected from more than 800 international applicants. They will perform in the Schwabacher Summer Concert (July 9 and 11), Postcard from Morocco (July 23 and 25), Le nozze di Figaro (Aug. 6 and 8), and the Merola Grand Finale (Aug. 22).

The 2020 Merola Summer Festival includes performances in San Francisco at the recently renovated Presidio Theatre (new location, with fewer than 600 seats against Herbst Theatre’s more than 900) and the War Memorial Opera House. Tickets go on sale to Merola members on March 31, and to the public on April 14; go to the Merola website or call (415) 864-3330.

Soprano Magdalena Kuzma is from New York City | Credit: Merola Opera Program

These are the selected artists, all currently studying in the United States, but some originally coming from Germany, South Korea, Russia, China, and Colombia:

Emily Blair, Hoffman Estates, Illinois
Catherine Goode, Friendswood, Texas
Magdalena Kuźma, New York, New York
Celeste Morales, San Antonio, Texas
Ashley Marie Robillard, Norton, Massachusetts
Mikayla Sager, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Johanna Will, Dresden, Germany

Gabrielle Barkidjija, River Forest, Illinois
Gabrielle Beteag, Atlanta, Georgia
Jesse Mashburn, Hartselle, Alabama
Nikola Printz, Novato, California
Isabel Signoret, Miami, Florida


Victor Cardamone, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Gabriel Hernandez, Tampa, Florida
Philippe L’Esperance, Grafton, Massachusetts
WooYoung Yoon, Seoul, South Korea (returning for a second year)
Tianchi Zhang, Huainan, Anhui, China


Thomas Lynch, Lynbrook, New York
Samson McCrady, Tucson, Arizona
Laureano Quant, Barranquilla, Colombia (returning for a second year)

Ben Brady, Denver, Colorado
Andrew Dwan, Mountain View, California (returning for a second year)
Seungyun Kim, Cheong-ju, South Korea

Apprentice Coaches
Yang Lin, Shanghai, China
Michael McElvain, Chicago, Illinois
Anna Smigelskaya, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Shiyu Tan, Changsha, Hunan, China
Marika Yasuda, Williamsburg, Virginia

Apprentice Stage Director

Audrey Chait, Menlo Park, California

Here are some of the digital responses from the new Merolini, with the help of publicist Sydney Albin during COVID-19 shelter-in-place restrictions.

Soprano Nikola Printz says “I do circus and aerial arts (often while singing), dance, and theater - I’m excited to fold these other forms of art into my operatic career” | Credit: Merola Opera Program

Mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz, from Novato, California:

When I found out I got into Merola, I was paralyzed with excitement — it came as such a surprise. I hadn’t planned on auditioning this year, and at the last minute decided to do so. I did my undergrad at SFCM [SF Conservatory of Music] and have been attending Merola events from time to time since 2010, but never imagined I would be in the position that I am today. Merola had always seemed like this chimerical, untouchable program.

[Beyond individual challenges] the devastating impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the arts is what worries me the most. Despite all of the financial pressures that our society will be facing, I am confident that our program can bring the community together through an appreciation of culture, diversity, and music.

Bass-baritone Seungyun Kim, from Cheong-ju, South Korea:

Since coming to the United States three years ago, getting accepted into the Merola Opera Program has been a goal of mine. Getting cast as Don Bartolo in Merola’s upcoming production of Le nozze di Figaro feels like a dream come true.

I’m excited for my opportunity to sing alongside world-class singers and learn from the top-tier coaches within the program. This once-in-a-lifetime experience will help us singers improve our technique, skill, and point of view about music.

I currently live in Kansas City, where a stay-at-home order went into place on March 24. While this order gives me more time to prepare for upcoming roles, I’m realizing that it’s becoming more difficult to practice while living with another person who also works remotely.

That being said, I believe that music has the power to heal individuals and restore relationships between people, nations, and races.

Soprano Celeste Morales, from San Antonio, Texas:

Soprano Celeste Morales comes from San Antonio and “a big Mexican-American family, where music was always around me.” | Credit: Merola Opera Program

As a child growing up in San Antonio, Texas with a big Mexican-American family, music was always around me. Every Friday night my Dad would blast his homemade DJ sound system outside and spin the soulful classics. Frank Sinatra, Sade, The Eagles, Earth, Wind and Fire, and our traditional Mexican folk mariachi music. Various colors of instruments, voices, and rhythms would fill the entire house.

My family was never shy when it came to showing our love and appreciation for music. Music is the language that will forever continue to serve as a vehicle in driving our family closer together — and we can thank the matriarch of the family, my grandma, for that.

From the time I heard my now 94-year-old Grandma Licha sing, I knew I had to follow suit. She grew up in poverty, had no musical training, and only finished school up until the eighth grade. She made the decision to quit school, find a job, and help her mom out. She taught herself the guitar and quickly became the leading soloist in her local community church choir. My Grandma Licha has always been my number one motivation in life, and even more so in the pursuit to follow this career path.

Tenor Tianchi Zhang is from Huainan, Anhui province, China | Credit: Merola Opera Program

Of Topic A, the pandemic, Merola Executive Director Jean Kellogg says:

We are eagerly anticipating another group of outstanding young artists this summer at Merola, and we look forward to providing them with intensive training from some of the finest master teachers in the country to further their careers.

At this time, we are moving ahead as planned. Our Merola participants are scheduled to arrive here on June 2, with public performances starting July 9.

We are closely monitoring the situation relating to COVID-19 and will assuredly heed all safety measures and government mandates to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Should it become necessary to truncate or postpone the Merola 2020 Summer Festival, we will immediately contact our patrons and all tickets purchased will be transferable/refundable as requested.