Q & A: Bass-Baritone Andrew Dwan & Soprano Amber Monroe on Participating In The Merola Opera Program

By Lois Silverstein

Becoming an opera singer is both an act of faith and a passion. It is also an arduous path of discipline and hard work, day after day, year after year.

When an audience sits in the opera houses of the world and revels in the sheer beauty of sound and drama, let alone the color and glamour of an operatic production and the music soaring out of an orchestra pit, we do not think of all that grit and determination.

But the quest for the gorgeous and marvelous that is opera lives in the hearts and minds of the performers as they make the marvelous happen. Take two example of San Francisco’s current Merola Opera Program: bass-baritone Andrew Dwan and soprano Amber Monroe.

Having been selected from more than 800 international applicants from as far away as Brazil, South Korea, New Zealand, Colombia and across the U.S., they have been training in the 12-week program through master classes, private coaching, foreign languages, diction, acting, stage movement, and opera repertory, and with accomplished singers and conductors and directors. Merola has served as a “proving ground” for hundreds of artists who have gone on to “impressive” operatic careers.

OperaWire had an opportunity to speak with Monroe and Dwan to learn a little of how they manage the balance between their rigorous daily commitment and the magic they hope will emerge from it.

OperaWire: When did you discover you might be an opera singer?

Amber Monroe: I was set to become a Veternarian. I love animals. I was enrolled in Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. I always sang for pleasure, mainly R&B, Gospel, Pop. One of my teachers asked me if I’d ever tried Opera. When I said No, I told him that opera and much of classical music was as far away from my life as another planet. He suggested, however, that I try it out. So, I did. And I fell in love!

Andrew Dwan: I sang in high school and I loved it. I sang musicals mainly, thing like Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” for instance. I didn’t know much about opera, but then, I discovered “Tosca” and “Nixon in China,”  and I was hooked. As a kid I had piano lessons too and I loved the music but I often felt the music “got away from me” or, at least, wasn’t as much under my control as I wanted. But singing? Well, it wasn’t that way; after all, it was coming right out of me. There I could be more in control. Then too, I could create a character. “No more was it just me up there; it was Figaro or Scarpia. It was marvelous.”

OW: What impact did this discovery have on your life from then on?

AM: I started studying music and opera in Ohio at Oberlin and at the Conservatory and then I took a program which took me with a group of students to Italy. It was pure magic. After, I started private voice lessons and learning languages, French, Italian, German. Now I’m even learning some Czech.” Do you have “Rusalka” in mind? She laughed as she acknowledged she did. “My family supported me 100%. It seemed like a gift from God

AD: I began devoting myself to cultivating my voice. I took lessons and started to focus on developing the building blocks of voice development: from music theory and composition to voice production and voice development. I learned about the mechanics of music and how to regulate the energy I needed both to produce my voice and to preserve it. It was easy for me, at first, to overwork and use up more energy than perhaps I needed. I had to regulate my life too outside of my training: spicy food, for example, a personal delight for me. But it didn’t go along with a healthy life style, which I require for good vocal technique. And late nights? Not any more. My friends and fiancé have begun to understand.

OW: How has your training with Merola supported some of these changes?

AM: The coaches and teachers and directors are a blessing. They watch out for me. They give me so much information on how to do what I am supposed to do. They also offer so much in the way of music training too, composition and orchestration. It is unbelievable that I am part of that program, free for students during their participation; I am only now learning all I can learn and have to look forward to learning. God has opened a door for me with Merola.

AD: Merola professionals are excellent. They teach and watch out for us and encourage us to work at a good pace. They help us not to overwork or burn ourselves out in the course of singing preparation. I have learned that every hour of singing is an extreme effort. I am learning how to develop a healthful balance. It is easy to lose track if you are not careful. I protect my voice now with balanced practice and healthful living. I have to be careful and kind to myself so I can sing at all times.

Also, I am learning a lot about developing operatic characters. I feel so interested in developing character specificity and believability. Also, I am learning about collaboration, with other singers as well as my professional teachers and coaches.

OW: Which singers and performers do you look up to and perhaps take as a model?

AM: Lawrence Brownlee for one, Leontyne Price for another. She has been my model from way back. Both of them always inspire me, their work ethic and their voices, of course. I look to them to guide building my voice. Then there is Lisette Opresa. I am very impressed with her sound and performance.

AD: I love the big, flexible sound of Samuel Ramie. I would like to be able to sing like that. And Gerald Finlay, whose performance as Nick Sims in “Doctor Atomic” is a perfect example of the joining of expression and vocal production. “Batter My Heart” is so expressive when he does it.

OW: How would you describe your own voice?

AM: I have a warm, lyric soprano voice. I feel it may move people, and that’s what I want. My voice also has been said to have a lot of spunk.

AD: I have a bright and clear sound, and I believe I have warmth and depth in it. I am developing those qualities further at now. Now too I am beginning to be satisfied with my  sound. I am solidifying my technique now and I am happy about that.

OW: What roles do you look forward to performing?

AM: I will be singing Magda from Puccini’s “La Rondine” for the Merola concert and in 2020, I will be singing Mozart’s Countess from “The Marriage of Figaro” with Kentucky Opera. Both of those roles I look forward to performing.

AD: I love Scarpia although I’d rather play a less dark villain. I’d like to play in “Nixon in China” and I am looking forward to singing Mephistopheles from “Faust” with Merola. He has the mixture of lighter and darker character I like. Also, I’d like to sing “Lucevan le stelle” even though it is not my vocal range. It’d be fun to try it out.


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