After a chaotic couple of months following the arrival of the pandemic, both San Francisco Opera and the Merola Opera Program gave up first on the summer session and later on all of 2020. As summer is all of Merola’s schedule, the organization decided to postpone the season to 2021. Following a whole year of effort, there was a tentative plan for the future, and now a clearly detailed action plan is in effect.
Merola Executive Director Jean Kellogg describes what happened:
Following a triumphant summer in 2019, when Merola premiered its very first commission, If I Were You by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, which brought in many new supporters and patrons, the pandemic shut down all the momentum we were building on for 2020. We were unable to honor Merola’s retiring beloved Artistic Director Sheri Greenawald in person, and the entire summer festival was canceled.
Nonetheless, Merola stayed true to its mission by offering online instruction for our young artists for a four-week period in July of 2020 and providing them with stipends to help defray costs from lost work. All were invited back as participants in the 2021 season. We also established the Merola Artists Emergency Fund to provide support to alumni from 2010–2019 who lost work due to the pandemic, and engaged a number of our alumni to perform in and produce a series of virtual recitals and our virtual benefit gala.
It was a day of celebration and tears late last spring when we were able to tell our young artists (via Zoom) that we would be bringing them to San Francisco (finally!) this summer. They willingly accepted all the restrictions placed upon them to ensure their safety and the continuation of the program, knowing the invaluable training and performance experience they’d acquire even during a shortened season. On the first day of the program when we met for orientation, I could see their smiles beaming even from behind their masks. The opportunity to sing and work with master teachers in person again was the best gift ever.
Merola’s budget can only be guessed at, because the 990 federal reporting requirement for nonprofit organizations is running two years after the fact, but five years ago it was a modest $3 million; Merola reported 3.6M in revenues against total expenses of $4M for Fiscal 2019, with net assets of $31.8M, supposedly falling back during the pandemic. If all goes well, the current approximate operating budget may be between $3M and $4M.
While the Merola training and coaching program is proceeding, public performances are mostly streamed and are available to members only. Exceptions for live, public performances are noted below. See the Merola website for ticket information.
Streamed master classes begin on June 30, with Warren Jones, who started coaching in the program 46 years ago, when Kurt Herbert Adler was general director of SF Opera; Adler was also the creator of the program named after his predecessor, Gaetano Merola. Jones has maintained his connection with the program ever since:
“I am thoroughly delighted to be invited to participate this summer in the vision that SF Opera Center’s Artistic Director Carrie-Ann Matheson and General Manager Markus Beam have set forth. The Merola Program has always been on the cutting edge in preparing young artists for careers in opera, whether it be singing, playing, or directing.
“Carrie-Ann and Markus have delineated a new approach to training, melding the best values and techniques of the past with the new information and knowledge that emerging artists need in order to succeed in this field today and in the future.”
The next event is an important one, and may be attended by donors: “What the Heart Desires” is performed at 2 p.m. July 3, in the SF Conservatory of Music, and a filmed performance will be available to members beginning July 16 and to the public on July 30. Curated by Ronnita Miller (Merola 2005) and Nicholas Phan, the event is supported by Amazon’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Program. It features works and performances by women and people of color, as well as two master classes by world renowned artists.
Amazon sponsors the artist residencies of mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves and Howard Watkins, pianist and assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. Graves (July 7) and Watkins (July 14) will lead master classes for Merola participants, which will be made available for online viewing by Merola members.
Amazon’s San Francisco Senior Manager of External Affairs Sally Kay says “By supporting the Merola Opera Program and two master classes, we can help ensure the arts are not only accessible to more of our neighbors, but that the artists reflect the rich diversity of our local community.”
“What the Heart Desires” features African American composer Robert Owens’s Havana Dreams, with Merola artists soprano Celeste Morales and pianist Erica Xiaoyan Guo; a set of songs by Henry Thacker Burleigh performed by tenors Edward Graves and Tianchi Zhang, with pianist Bryan Banowetz; works by Zenobia Powell Perry and Howard Swanson, performed by tenor Tianchi Zhang and pianist Bryan Banowetz; also works by Zenobia Powell Perry, Chen Yi, Stacy Garrop, Mohammed Fairouz, Florence Price, and others.
Tenor Graves says “This summer, I’m looking forward to making music again and learning through the collaborative process. After a year of Zoom coaching, lessons, and rehearsals, I can’t wait to have in-person sessions where I can grow and develop during my time here. I’m a tenor and am naturally worried about high notes, so working with voice teachers César Ulloa and Julia Faulkner will help me find ways to access my top notes more easily.
“Preparing for ‘What the Heart Desires,’ I’ve found the coaches are equally as invested in the singers and pianists — it is a true collaborative effort. One of the challenges is that when you haven’t been singing consistently for the past year, it can be quite an adjustment to come to a new city (dealing with local allergens) and have the stamina to sing for multiple hours a day. I’ve definitely learned how to pace myself not only vocally, but physically and mentally as well.”
Soprano Morales told SF Classical Voice: “It’s only been two weeks at this summer’s Merola Opera Program, and I can honestly say that I am seeing immense growth in my colleagues and in myself. The entire staff at Merola has tackled the chaos that was last year, turning it into an opportunity and safe space where we as artists can thrive.
“Last year we saw stage doors close, instruments and scores collect dust, lives being taken every day, and the world as we knew it completely stopped. There is certainly no forgetting the pain that we all felt collectively last year, yet as we move forward, what I see and feel from my colleagues and coaches today is an unwavering ability to dive deeper into what it takes to make great art. It takes heart, dedication, and above all, courage.”
Watkins adds: “My usual regimen at the Met is a whirlwind of rehearsals and performances that occupies me from late August until late May, or even early June. However, since March 2020, that hasn’t been a part of the picture. Rather than leaving me with an empty schedule, it ended up providing me with the free time to pursue wonderful new opportunities — teaching more of my Juilliard students, teaching and conducting students at the Bard Conservatory, beginning a terrific new collaboration with Gerald Martin Moore and the students at the Yale School of Music, and much more.
“Still, being here at Merola, in person with our fabulous young artists after our long period of deprivation is like a glorious dawn after the long dark night. All of us have lost friends and family, or have known people who were lost, and the very fact that we are still here in the face of that, pursuing the art that we love so much is a testament to our resilience and that of all artists. That honor is happening for us in this legendary institution, and is truly a gift to be cherished.”
The documentary Back Home: Through the Stage Door will be available to members on Aug. 13, to the public on Aug. 27. Conceived and directed for film by David Paul, it showcases the 2021 Merola artists, highlighting the program’s approach to adapting to the digital demands of the opera world today.
And another live/filmed event is the Merola Grand Finale, performed at 2 p.m. on July 31, available to members on Aug. 20, released to the public on Sept. 3; the venue is yet to be determined.
Directed by 2021 Merola Stage Director Audrey Chait and accompanied by the Merola pianist coaches, the performance will feature the entire Merola class.