After the pandemic-canceled 2020 season, the Merola Opera Program’s public presence is slowly coming to life with plans for 2021. Among organizations with a schedule making the hiatus even more lengthy — for example, SF Opera and its winter-summer seasons — Merola has been mostly out of the public eye (and ear) since its August 2019 Grand Finale, except for some online presence. (Locally, both SF Symphony and SF Ballet had their seasons interrupted in March 2020.)
The plan announced today is nothing less than a declaration of resuming the prestigious training program in full as much as COVID-19 restrictions permit. Details about in-person audience participation are yet to come on the Merola website.
When the 2020 Merola training program was canceled, the young artists who had been accepted were instead offered a series of virtual workshops and online training in fields such as foreign languages, acting, and movement, as well as master chats with opera and theater luminaries.
In summer 2020, the company initiated the Merola Artists Emergency Fund to offer much-needed financial assistance to those artists who have lost wages and incurred unreimbursed expenses as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, for the first time in two years, 27 young artists will be in San Francisco and participate in an intensive training program comprised of seminars, lessons, and coaching in various aspects of a professional performance career. A COVID manager will assist throughout the summer with safety protocols for classes, rehearsals, and performances.
Mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz says she is excited to be able to have the training in person. “We’ve been so starved of collaboration for the past year, and that for me is the most important part of music. So we get to work with our coaches and teachers in person, which feels like a luxury.”
For the public, a recital on July 3, the Grand Finale on July 31, and digital projects will be offered, outdoor and indoor locations are still being considered.
The July 3 recital, “What the Heart Desires,” is celebrating diversity with works by Black/Indigenous/People of Color (BIPOC) and female composers; Merola artists will also be featured in a digital program of operatic highlights titled “Back Home: Through the Stage Door,” conceived for film and released online July 30. Information on how to attend performances will be posted at the Merola website soon.
There are a few changes in leadership this year. Jean Kellogg remains Merola executive director, but after the retirement last year of Sheri Greenawald, this will be the program’s first season under the new San Francisco Opera Center leadership of Artistic Director Carrie-Ann Matheson and General Manager Markus Beam.
Kellogg told SF Classical Voice:
Following a year of canceled performances and no in-person lessons or coachings, the opportunity for a summer of intensive training for the young artists attending Merola is incredibly positive and motivating.
With opera houses slowly reopening, they will have a chance to work one-on-one daily with master teachers and perform publicly in a safe environment, some of them for the first time in over a year.
I have heard from a number of artists who have had the opportunity to sing publicly again about how daunting and even scary it is to go back onstage after such a long hiatus. A summer at Merola — fully subsidized — will give them the confidence they will need to step back onto the opera stage.
The 27 Merola artists selected from more than 800 international applicants were invited to participate in last year’s program but were unable to attend in person due to pandemic restrictions. The artists, most of whom are currently studying in the United States, originally come from as far away as China, Colombia, Germany, and Russia, as well as across the U.S. and Canada.
When the 2020 Merola training program was canceled due to the pandemic, the young artists who had been accepted were instead offered a series of virtual workshops and online training in fields such as foreign languages, acting, and movement, as well as master chats with opera and theater luminaries.
Now training will expand to include performing for the camera, as well as perfecting presentations for live audiences.
This year’s Merola Opera Program artists include:
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
Victor Cardamone, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Edward Graves, Oxon Hill, Maryland
Gabriel Hernandez, Tampa, Florida
Philippe L’Esperance, Grafton, Massachusetts
Tianchi Zhang, Huainan, Anhui, China
Thomas Lynch, Lynbrook, New York
Samson McCrady, Tucson, Arizona
Laureano Quant, Barranquilla, Colombia
Ben Brady, Denver, Colorado
Andrew Dwan, Mountain View, California
Erica Xiaoyan Guo, Tianjin, China
Yang Lin, Shanghai, China
Anna Smigelskaya, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Shiyu Tan, Changsha, Hunan, China
Marika Yasuda, Williamsburg, Virginia
Audrey Chait, Menlo Park, California
Merola Opera Program faculty members include:
Digital project director David Paul
Recital co-curators Ronnita Miller (Merola ’05), Nicholas Phan
Visiting artist and master coach Denyce Graves
Master coaches Alan Darling, Warren Jones, Martin Katz, Jonathan Kelly, Carrie-Ann Matheson, Howard Watkins
Voice teachers: Deborah Birnbaum, Julia Faulkner, César Ulloa
Diction coaches: Alessandra Cattani, Patricia Kristof Moy, Anja Strauss
Career coaching: Markus Beam (Merola ’02)