Merola duet
Finn Sagal and Demetrious Sampson Jr. in a scene from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore | Credit: Kristen Loken

As it’s done every year since 1957 (except for the pandemic), the Merola Opera Program has once again dazzled audiences with the talent of its young singers and apprentice coaches.

The Schwabacher Summer Concert, initiated by and in honor of Merola’s co-founder, took place Saturday afternoon in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Concert Hall. Steve White conducted the San Francisco Opera Orchestra; 2014 Merola alumna Omer Ben Seadia was the stage director.

A varied program of opera excerpts highlighted brilliant talent among the young artists not performing in other Merola productions. They are part of the class of 2023, consisting of 22 singers, five apprentice coaches, and apprentice director Tania Arazi-Coambs (who assisted in the concert’s staging), selected from more than 1,300 international applicants.

As the 12-week program of instruction, master classes, rehearsals, and performances nears its conclusion with the Aug. 19 Grand Finale, Saturday’s concert presented clear proof of the advanced state of training for individual artists and for the group as a whole.

Merola duet
So Ry Kim and Kevin Godínez in a scene from Verdi’s Rigoletto | Credit: Kristen Loken

Besides big, beautiful voices, the singers’ projection and diction in the two grand duets by Verdi that opened and closed the concert were also impeccable, especially soprano So Ry Kim (Daejeon, South Korea) as Gilda in an excerpt from Rigoletto and the fiery Iago of baritone Eleomar Cuello (Havana, Cuba) in an excerpt from Otello.

Both singers were in excellent company, Kim with the Rigoletto of baritone Kevin Godínez (San José, Costa Rica) and the Duke of tenor Daniel Luis Espinal (Sarasota, Florida) and Cuello with the Otello of tenor Thomas William Kinch (Cardiff, Wales), the Desdemona of soprano Juliette Chauvet (Avignon, France), and the Emilia of mezzo-soprano Lucy Joy Altus (New York, New York).

To the credit of generations of Merola programmers, these concerts seldom consist of warhorses alone, and so it was this time as well. There were treasures beyond Verdi and the ever-delightful elixir-selling scene from Donizetti’s L’elisir dְ’amore, with the Nemorino of tenor Demetrious Sampson Jr. (Albany, Georgia) and the Dulcamara of bass-baritone Finn Sagal (La Cañada, California).

Merola duet
Joanne Evans and Cecelia Steffen McKinley in a scene from Handel’s Giulio Cesare | Credit: Kristen Loken

The novelty — including impressive German diction by the Merolini — was an excerpt from Kevin Puts’s 2011 Silent Night, featuring soprano Georgiana Adams (Wheaton, Illinois), Sagal, and Sampson.

Two scenes came from less-than-standard operas: Handel’s Giulio Cesare — an affecting duet by mezzo-soprano Joanne Evans (London, U.K.) and contralto Cecelia Steffen McKinley (Sterling, Virginia) — and Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet — with baritone Samuel Kidd (Ann Arbor, Michigan) as Hamlet and Shan Hai (Beijing, China) as Ophelia.

After the Grand Finale, some of the Merolini will be named Adler Fellows, and some will go on to engagements in opera houses around the world — and perhaps eventually be added to the list of such Merola-launched stars as Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, Patricia Racette, Carol Vaness, Deborah Voigt, and Dolora Zajick.