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Merola 2019 Is Full of Promise

May 13, 2019

The premiere of Jake Heggie’s commissioned opera, If I Were You, is the obvious headline for the Merola Opera Program’s upcoming 62nd season, but there is so much more to this gathering of explosive young operatic talent in and around San Francisco’s War Memorial.

In fact, if you ask Heggie, he too will make the same point:

I’ve been an avid fan of the Merola Opera Program for 25 years, since I moved to San Francisco. Every summer, I look forward to being dazzled anew by young singers on their way to extraordinary careers.

Getting to hear them in multiple venues in a variety of rep is a big part of the fun. This summer offers an array of opera scenes in the Schwabacher Summer Concert at the SF Conservatory, master classes with great teachers and coaches, the Merola Grand Finale at the War Memorial Opera House, and of course the world premiere of Merola’s first commissioned opera, If I Were You.

These performances are also a great way to get connected to a wonderful community of opera lovers who care deeply about the future of the art form.

In 1957, the same year when Kurt Herbert Adler’s title changed from SF Opera’s artistic director to general director, he turned his ongoing West Coast Opera Auditions into the formal Merola organization — named for his predecessor, Gaetano Merola — to help young artists launch their careers.

Through his extraordinary stewardship of the company for over a quarter century, Adler thrust this far-away regional company into the ranks of the world’s leading opera companies and also guided the Merola program, which produced some 1,300 alumni. They include such stars as Susan Graham, Joyce DiDonato, Patricia Racette, Deborah Voigt, Dolora Zajick, Mark Delavan, Thomas Hampson, and many more.

Now, Merola 2019 provides an all-expenses-paid, 12-week summer opera training program in San Francisco for 29 young artists from Canada, South Korea, New Zealand, Colombia, Brazil, Australia, and 12 states.

Before the opening public performances in July, Merolini will be coached, trained in operatic repertory, foreign languages, diction, acting, and stage movement; they rehearse, participate in master classes, and receive private coaching.

There are performances open to the public and events for members only. There are various ways of supporting the program and becoming a member.

Opening the season will be the Schwabacher Summer Concert, on July 11 and 13 in the S.F. Conservatory of Music. Merolini will perform semistaged scenes from Lucia di Lammermoor, Il trovatore, Faust, Die schweigsame Frau, and La rondine, conducted by Craig Kier from the University of Maryland, and directed by Jose Maria Condemi, a Merola alumnus from 1999/2000, and now Director of Opera and Musical Theater at the S.F. Conservatory of Music.

What are the singers’ expectations as the program begins? Mezzo Brennan Blankenship, from Klein, Texas, will have an important role in If I Were You, and she is thrilled by the chance to create the character of Brittomara in the world premiere:

“The shape-shifting devil’s music and text are sultry, ominous, and filled with hidden meaning, making her a cryptic siren with moments of wry humor and frank honesty. Finding the nuances of such a complex character is both a joy and a challenge.”

Another mezzo from Texas (Amarillo), Cara Collins, has the same role in another cast, and she too refers to the “dark, menacing” nature of the character. She says “The message in this opera is powerful and needs to be heard. I want people to walk away and value who they are as individuals after hearing Fabian’s story.”

Young artists face many challenges, and Stefan Egerstrom, a bass from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, who is singing the Schwabacher concerts, is open about dealing with them: “I will most definitely have to get out of my own way this summer. It’s very tempting to think ‘I have to prove to myself and everyone else that I belong here.’

“Self-doubt can really get in the way of personal growth, so it’s important for me to just be in the moment. If I’m only focused on never making a misstep, then I’m not allowing myself the freedom to flourish.”

Tenor Nicholas Huff, from Kenosha, Wisconsin, has the main role of Fabian in one of the two casts, and he says “I’ve done new and recent operas before, but the chance to create a new role in this world premiere will be an incredible opportunity.

“Singers often have to access their creativity for a role within the framework of well-established precedents and periods of style — which are beautiful, but can feel limiting. In contrast, putting together a new work like this, especially one by such a masterful composer of our time, feels like everything is new.”

For soprano Elisa Sunshine, from San Clemente, California, singing in Heggie’s opera completes a cycle: “I am beyond excited to be surrounded by experts in the field of opera. It’s like being given free rein in a library filled with the world’s most enriching books; whose generous brain can I pick first?

“One of these brains undoubtedly belongs to Jake Heggie. It was one of his song cycles, Eve-Song, that made me fall head over heels in love with classical music. Being involved in one of his opera premieres is a dream come true.”

Like Egerstorm, Sunshine also thinks about psychological challenges: “Erasing old programming, addressing negative self-talk, and giving myself permission to conquer technical, musical, and performing challenges always starts with me and myself. I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to face these challenges under the expert guidance of the team at Merola.”

The other new Merolini in If I Were You are:

- Michael Day, tenor, from Rockford, Illinois
- Edith Grossman, mezzo, from Elma, New York
- Edward Laurenson, baritone, from Auckland, New Zealand
- Anne-Marie MacIntosh, soprano, from Langley, British Columbia, Canada
- Timothy Murray, baritone, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin
- Rafael Porto, bass-baritone, from Sao Paulo, Brazil
- Brandon Scott Russell, tenor, from Springfield, Missouri
- Esther Tonea, soprano, Buford, Georgia
- Patricia Westley, soprano, Santa Barbara, California

Singers appearing in the Schwabacher concerts:

- Salvatore Atti, tenor, Buffalo, New York
- Jeff Byrnes, baritone, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
- Alice Chung, Loma Linda, Calfornia
- Anna Dugan, soprano, Cranford, New Jersey
- Andrew Dwan, bass-baritone, Mountain View, Calfornia
- Chelsea Lehnea, soprano, from Chattanooga, Tennessee
- Amber R. Monroe, soprano, Youngstown, Ohio
- Laureano Quant, baritone, Barranquilla, Colombia
- Hyeree Shin, soprano, from Cheon-an, South Korea
- Victor Starsky, tenor, from Richmond Hill, Queens, New York

Apprentices:

- Greg Eldridge, stage director, from Melbourne, Australia
- Andrew King, coach, from Syracuse, New York
- Christopher Koelzer, coach, from Sunnyvale, California
- Nicholas Roehler, coach, from Allentown, Pennsylvania
- William Woodard, coach, from Normal, Illinois

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].