Last year’s Merola class
Last year’s Merola class; the program welcomes a new set of young artists this summer | Credit: Kristen Loken

Gaetano Merola, who founded San Francisco Opera a century ago, was honored in 1957 by Kurt Herbert Adler, his successor, who named the country’s first major opera training program after him, and so the Merola Opera Program was born.

Adler, SF Opera’s second general manager, said of the program he created with James H. Schwabacher Jr. and Matthew Farruggio: “Why do our Western singers have to go to New York to audition? Why can’t we give them a chance here first?”

Schwabacher said, “Mr. Adler always believed … that the program should have two elements: one-to-one coaching in the rehearsal room and actual performance of an opera.”

For the past 65 seasons (including a missed one during the pandemic), the program has provided training for hundreds of young artists, among whom were such future stars as Laura Claycomb, Mark Delavan, Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Jill Grove, Thomas Hampson, Brian Jagde, Quinn Kelsey, Janis Martin, Lucas Meachem, Leona Mitchell, Ailyn Pérez, Patricia Racette, Michael Schade, Nadine Sierra, Stuart Skelton, Jess Thomas, Carol Vaness, Rolando Villazón, Deborah Voigt, and Dolora Zajick.

Carrie-Ann Matheson
SF Opera Center Artistic Director Carrie-Ann Matheson

The program provides for training in San Francisco from June through August and covers the artists’ travel, housing, weekly stipends, and all training expenses. In addition, Merola alums may qualify for career grants up to $12,000 for the five years following their participation in the program.

Following training in Merola, artists may be named to the follow-up Adler Fellowship and receive an invitation to perform in a Schwabacher Recital.

On Wednesday, SF Opera Center Artistic Director Carrie-Ann Matheson, SF Opera Center General Manager Markus Beam (a 2002 Merola alumnus), and Merola Executive Director Jean Kellogg announced this year’s Merola Opera Program artists.

Sopranos: Georgiana Adams (Wheaton, Illinois), Juliette Chauvet (Avignon, France), Caroline Corrales (St. Louis, Missouri), Shan Hai (Beijing, China), So ry Kim (Daejeon, South Korea), and Olivia Prendergast (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; second year)

Mezzo-sopranos: Lucy Joy Altus (New York, New York), Joanne Evans (London, United Kingdom), Simona Genga (Toronto, Ontario), and Natalie Lewis (Severna Park, Maryland)

Contralto: Cecelia Steffen McKinley (Sterling, Virginia)

Tenors: Daniel Luis Espinal (Sarasota, Florida; second year), Zackry Chance Jonas-O’Toole (Dallas, Texas; second year), Thomas William Kinch (Cardiff, Wales), Sahel Salam (Houston, Texas; second year), and Demetrious Dramon Sampson (Albany, Georgia; third year)

Baritones: Eleomar Cuello (Havana, Cuba), Kevin Na Godínez (San José, Costa Rica), Samuel Kidd (Ann Arbor, Michigan), Samson William McCrady (Tucson, Arizona), and Cameron Rolling (Waycross, Georgia)

Bass-baritones: James McCarthy (Pleasantville, New York) and Finn Daniel Sagal (La Cañada, California)

Pianists/coaches: Nicole Marie Cloutier (White Lake, Michigan), Julian Grabarek (Acton, Massachusetts), Hyemin Jeong (Seoul, South Korea), Pei-Hsuan Tiana Lin (Kaohsiung, Taiwan), and Deborah Robertson (Springfield, Missouri; second year)

Stage director: Tania Arazi Coambs (Champaign, Illinois)

As this is only a list of names, and meeting the artists will not be possible until the program begins in the summer, SFCV reached out to a handful here to learned about the backgrounds and aspirations of a few Merolini.

Natalie Lewis
Natalie Lewis is a first-year mezzo-soprano | Courtesy of Merola Opera Program​​​​​​

Mezzo-soprano Natalie Lewis told SF Classical Voice: “I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. I started with gospel and soul music, the only music my mother let me listen to until I was 8 or 9, and grew up listening to and being compelled by beautiful voices.

“Artists like Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Otis Redding, The Clark Sisters, LaShun Pace, [and] Kirk Franklin and the Family are only a few of the singers who inspired me to sing. In middle school I was exposed to choir, band, and what would become my new obsession, musical theater.

“I continued musical activities in high school and intended to pursue musical theater after I graduated. My music teachers at Bedford High School in Bedford, Massachusetts, encouraged me instead to pursue a degree in classical voice after hearing me sing the Fairy Godmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. This character sings in an operatic style and was my first time singing this way.

“I started taking voice lessons my final year of high school, applied to four schools, and decided to attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It was here, with the help of my wonderful teacher, William Hite, that I discovered my love of opera. It took elements of all of the genres I had loved and sang in the past and brought [them] to a grander, opulent, bigger, insanely dramatic scale.

“From there I went to Juilliard, where I am finishing up my master’s now, and my love for this has only grown. I still can’t believe I will be attending Merola this summer, and I am most looking forward to my role opportunity that will be announced soon. I know this summer is going to be yet another wonderful growing experience for my musical journey, and I cannot wait!”

Pei-Hsuan Tiana Lin, originally from Taiwan, has a master’s degree in piano performance and collaborative piano from the Peabody Institute and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Pei-Hsuan Tiana Lin
Pei-Hsuan Tiana Lin is one of the pianists/coaches | Credit: Eric Tsai

She told SFCV that she started in music at the age of 5 and “played the cello for 11 years before I switched my major to solely focus on piano during my undergrad in Taiwan because I wanted to study in the U.S. and traveling as a pianist is much easier than as a cellist.

“Opera was not popular when I was in Taiwan. I did not know there even existed an occupation called vocal coach until I came to the U.S. for my master’s degree. I love playing with singers and vocal works. This industry can be difficult at times, and I am lucky enough to have some really good mentors and colleagues who believe in me and keep supporting me along the way.

“With Merola being one of the best opera programs in the world, I am very excited to meet new and old friends, play the scheduled opera, and many more collaborations in vocal arts. I hope to collaborate with many great artists and absorb as much knowledge and [as many] skills from the experience here [as I can].

“I think it is magical to see everyone working toward the same goals to make productions happen. I also aim to be an artist who has the ability to help and support my colleagues in every possible way, as well as keep the positive and healthy energy in the industry.”

Deborah Robertson wrote: “I am one of the pianists/coaches going to Merola for my second year. My musical background started with singing. My mother is a singer, and she taught me how to read music. I sang in a lot of choirs and at home, and I would sing for school contests and things like that.

“I came to the piano a little bit late. I was 8 when I started lessons, but I had inconsistent lessons and didn’t really start my serious study of the piano until I was in college. A lot of my early piano experience was playing with my mother, art songs, arias, and a lot of choral scores. I think my early musical background developed my love of singers and of the human voice.

Deborah Robertson
Pianist/coach Deborah Robertson controlling sound effects “such as horse gallops, gunshots, fountain sounds, and a drone” at a Merola production | Credit: Shawn Chang

“I have a bachelor’s degree in piano performance from Brigham Young University, where I studied with Scott Holden. I was introduced to opera there my freshman year when I got a job playing for the opera scenes. I interviewed and went straight into a staging rehearsal to sight-read the fight scene from Act 4 of La bohème, and I was completely blown away because I had never heard music like Puccini before.

“I transitioned into vocal collaborative piano (master’s degree from Louisiana State University with Ana María Otamendi) and then opera coaching after that. I am finishing up my last semester of an artist diploma in opera coaching from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where I’ve worked with Kathleen Kelly and Marie-France LeFebvre. And then, last summer I went to Merola.

“Things that are important to me as an artist: creating spaces of joy for artists and audiences, using music as a lens to learn about and interact with the world, developing the total person (not just the musician), and meeting audiences at eye level, creating programs and performances that truly serve a community and invite them into the story alongside the artists.

“I am looking forward to creating performances that are alive and tell a great story. My first year at Merola I struggled with insecurity, and I went into a lot of situations with the baseline assumption I was wrong about how the music was supposed to go, and it got in the way of the storytelling.

“Working with the faculty there, especially Carrie-Ann Matheson, Warren Jones, and Mario Marra, I figured out how to prepare myself and the music in a way that allowed me to be confident that I could be successful walking into the rehearsal room. I am looking forward to building on that confidence and working on creating scenes and sound worlds that come alive and captivate audiences.

“San Francisco is the most diverse place I have ever been, and I admire the work San Francisco Opera has done to engage with different groups of people in the city, and I hope we can continue that work with Merola 2023.”