Interview: Why The Merola Opera Program Continues To Develop Into One of the Best In the World

Young Artists & Artistic Director On The Program’s Methods & Ideas

By David Salazar

It was 1957 and opera was in the midst of a golden age of singing.

Kurt Herbert Adler, the second general director in San Francisco Opera’s history, knew that for opera to continue, young talent needed to be fostered and grown.

So he sought out the help of tenor James H. Schwabacher Jr., San Francisco Opera’s production coordinator Matthew Farruggio, and renowned vocal coach and pianist Otto Guth. Together the three created what we now know as the Merola Opera Program, named in honor of Alder’s predecessor Gaetano Merola.

Now 61 years later and Merola Opera Program is one of the most distinguished in the world. And its reputation is only going to grow in 2019, when it will present Jake Heggie and Gene Sheer’s “If I Were You,” the first opera ever commissioned in the program’s history.

Individual Emphasis

So what has allowed Merola Opera Program to thrive for 61 years?

“I believe the absolute attention to the individual singer, which means a myriad of coachings and lessons and classes, is what makes the Merola Opera Program unique,” stated the program’s current artistic director Sheri Greenawald in an interview with OperaWire about the program.

“Merola is unique in that the program exists for the sole purpose of developing the artists. These singers are not coming because they will be the chorus for more famous singers already in their professional careers. They come to be developed through coaching and through opportunities to create roles onstage. The performances are not the end goal – the process is the emphasis,” added conductor Mark Morash, who worked with young artists in the program this past summer.

One of the 2018 young artists was mezzo-soprano Anne Maguire, who is a graduate from the Boston Conservatory and Yale School of Music. She came to the program and took on the role of Baba the Turk in the program’s production of “The Rake’s Progress.”

“Rather than spending all our time in chorus rehearsals and covering principal artists, we are the principal artists,” she told OperaWire. “We get all the rehearsal time, all the coachings, all the responsibility, and all the reward.”

Every year, around 30 artists, some returning for a second stint, are selected to join the program in preparations for performing in one of the two operas that the company puts on; this past year’s operas were Mozart’s “Il Re Pastore” and “The Rake’s Progress” by Stravinsky. If they are not cast in a role, they get an opportunity to collaborate in the Schwabacher Summer Concert, where they might be tasked with three or four arias from different operas.

As emphasized by Greenawald, they all get an opportunity to perform.

Take tenor Brian Michael Moore, who performed four arias in the Schwabacher Summer Concerts this past summer and noted that the experience was a “great challenge.”

He came to Merola back in 2016 when he was just “fresh out of college and didn’t know much about the professional world.” After his stint with the program, he went straight into the Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program, where he spent two seasons.

“Now, coming to Merola a second time, I am much more comfortable in a professional setting, and I have been able to communicate more specifically and openly with all of the highest-level coaches and musicians that work with us here,” he told OperaWire.

After the summer, Moore headed to New York to continue his development at The Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

Constant Work

A great deal of the results that young artists see from the program stems from the emphasis on individual development. In addition to being challenged with their performances, they are constantly exposed to different ideas and thoughts on their artistry in recurring voice lessons and coachings.

“Not a week goes by that we are not afforded a coaching, lesson, or masterclass with a different master,” Maguire noted. “In the first 4 weeks, I’d had multiple coachings with Martin Katz, Tracy Dahl, Jane Eaglen, Patricia Kristof Moy, Alessandra Cattani, and sung in a masterclass for Warren Jones. These are on top of the opportunities we have to work with both Mark Morash and Sheri Greenawald.”

One of the great challenges for those shepherding the young artists to the next phase of their respective careers is the gap in experience. Greenawald noted that many of the “Merolini” vary as much as 10 years in age. Some of the younger artists are still figuring out how to utilize their instruments and have had fewer performance opportunities with which to develop it.

“I often have to remind myself that I need to articulate ideas that seem obvious to me,” Morash added. “One of the most challenging elements is to be able to imagine how these young artists may be processing what they are hearing – if there are information gaps that make ideas difficult to process or what may be standing in their way of making progress.”

In terms of making sure that the young artists get the most out of the program, the organizers are very diligent with the kind of repertory that they pick.

“Not letting young singers get too frustrated with their work is essential.  That is why one should always program operas that can ensure success, rather than pose such huge challenges that one or two of the principles could have a failure in a role,” Greenawald noted. “That is why I won’t program things like ‘La Traviata.’ Having sung the role of Violetta myself, I know how long I needed for myself as a professional to learn and routine the role. And six months, which is roughly the time between the auditions and the program, is not enough time to absorb such a role, especially for singers who are still in school and being distracted by those requirements.”

“Merola values their singers highly,” Maguire concluded. “We aren’t second string, we aren’t cheap labor. We’re valued and cared for and prioritized. We’re all housed in beautiful locations with gracious hosts, and although we have full schedules and work hard, we always seem to have enough downtime and solitude to stay physically and mentally healthy.”


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