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A Mazzo of Merola Winners

August 15, 1999

By Janos Gereben

It is called "Merola Program Grand Finale," but for 37 of its 40-year existence, it was "Finals," as in the last lap of race. Then somebody nice and PC decided that opera should be egalitarian, all the better to protect the fragile egos of young singers. Otherwise, they may all turn into battling artists, see?

A more probable explanation than playing nice guy--Merola got embarrassed at picking the wrong ones over and over. A couple of examples from the past: Dolora Zajic was awarded fourth place after she'd pinned us all to the backs of our seats with a world-class "O don fatale." Zajic was beaten by (in order) Nikki Li Hartliep, Joan Gibbons, and Donna Bruno. Thomas Hampson came in behind Sally Wolf, Kevin Langan, Shirley Willis Jaron, and Marilyn Jean Howell.

A rose by any other politically correct name, this "contest" among the young singers in the San Francisco Opera's pioneering apprentice program is still an exciting, meaningful event, with all eyes and ears on the "winners." If they can't take the heat, better pick an easier profession such as brain surgery combined with extreme-sport events.

In tonight's finals/finale of the 1999 Merola Program in the War Memorial Opera House, after a slow, uneventful first half, the winners were:

Bolivian mezzo Katia Giselle Escalera, 24, who shone in two relatively small selections (member of the Trio in Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, and in an excerpt for the delightful Concepcion from Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole), then came front and center, in "Per questa fiamma indomita" from Anna Bolena. It's a big, stunning voice, with a promise of spinto-with-beauty, possibly in the proper soprano range. By the time she hits 25 or even 26, we'll know. Meanwhile, she is ready for real roles in real houses.

John Tessier, 29, Canada (Alberta), the country that gave us Jon Vickers and South Park, a lyric tenor with a superb projection and apparently no limit in high notes. His Arnold in "Ou vas-tu?" from Guillaume Tell, hitting high E flat with ease, brought the house down, well deserved.

Twyle Robinson, 29, a soprano from Louisiana, had already made an impression as Vanessa in the Barber opera and then she nailed it in "Fra' mortali acora oppressa" from Verdi's Luisa Miller, In this program closing scene, she ruled the stage with a stunning vocal presence.

Sharing the Luisa Miller spotlight was Kyu Won Han, 27, a Korean bass, as Miller. Earlier, the warmth and strength of his voice was affecting in an Arabella excerpt, with the remarkably talented Meagan Miller in the title role. The 24-year-old soprano from Pennsylvania sang an Arabella that was superior to many a "post-apprentice" performance I have heard.

Opera means more than "just" voice, and Oren Gradus, 24, a baritone from Brooklyn, proved that with his hilarious General Boum in "Piff, paff, pouff" from Offenbach's The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein -- and there is a lot of voice there too!

It's unfortunate but unavoidable to report that the often great SFO Orchestra apparently hasn't started pre-season training yet. Ian Robertson, the outstanding chorus master and fine all-purpose conductor at other times, couldn't get the orchestra out of its summer relaxation. Long, slow, uninspired passages rolled by, from Un Ballo in Maschera, Fidelio (particularly dreadful), Il Barbiere di Siviglia, etc.--before the musicians woke up to The Rake's Progress... and then sounded more like themselves to the end of the program. One wonders if there were rehearsals (in the plural), especially for the first half of the evening's program.

It is a good thing that in a few years, when this group of Merolini conquers the world and we can say that "we were there when," the strained strains of tonight's Beethoven will long be forgotten.

(Janos Gereben is arts editor of the Oakland (CA) Post Newspaper Group.)

©1999 Janos Gereben, all rights reserved