Q & A: Merola Opera Program Leadership on How Cultivating Awareness Makes Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia” an Urgent Story Visible Today

By Jennifer Pyron
Photo Credit: Kristen Loken

Merola Opera Program presents Benjamin Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia” on July 13th and 15th at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, with director Jan Essinger, conductor Judith Yan, and a creative team including intimacy coordinator Maya Herbsman. Merola will also host a special conversational forum, post-performance on Saturday, July 15th with the creative team and a representative from San Francisco Women Against Rape (SFWAR) for everyone to learn more together.  

OperaWire had the opportunity to speak with Merola Executive Director Jean Kellogg, San Francisco Opera Center (SFO) Artistic Director Carrie-Ann Matheson, and SFO General Manager Markus Beam, and learn more about Merola’s extensive training program. OperaWire focused on exactly how Merola continues their legacy of cultivating the wellbeing and education of artists who are making a positive difference in our world today. 

OperaWire (OW): How did the idea of performing “The Rape of Lucretia” at Merola come to fruition? Why this opera and why now?

Carrie-Ann Matheson (CAM): Our primary goal at Merola is training. Programming decisions are ultimately based on what our young artists can learn from being given the opportunity to explore the repertoire that we choose. Because our faculty and creative teams are so carefully and intentionally chosen, we are able to provide a supportive environment in which to explore difficult topics. This opera provides an opportunity for our artists to explore really challenging material within a safe space. They can begin to develop tools while they are here, with an artistic team and staff that is intentionally looking at this as a developmental experience for the artists. They can then take those tools with them as they walk into other challenging situations that they will undoubtedly face during their operatic careers.

Markus Beam (MB): In addition to a wonderfully sensitive director and creative team, we have an intimacy director, Maya Herbsman, who’s been involved from the beginning of the process. She met with the directors and designers even before rehearsals began, and has been present at all pertinent rehearsals throughout the staging process. She has also graciously made herself available at any time to anyone in the process who has needed additional support, especially in regard to the tougher scenes and themes of the opera. To Carrie-Ann’s point, we are making sure that everyone involved feels supported in this process. As we all know, many opera librettos deal with similarly difficult topics, so this isn’t something our performers will only encounter in this particular opera. This work will aid them in approaching other pieces that they will go on to perform in their careers. 

OW: How does this performance of “The Rape of Lucretia” differ from those done in years past?

Jean Kellogg (JK): With the #MeToo movement fresh in our minds, we – and our audiences – have a heightened awareness of the issues in this piece. In the past, we hired a director that was sensitive to the issues in this opera, and crafted a well-regarded production. This year we are even more focused on the impact on our audience, but just as importantly, on the singers playing these roles, and we are including an intimacy director, which is a new addition to our training component. Carrie-Ann Matheson was very careful and very specific about who was chosen to direct this opera and conduct it, to ensure all involved were sensitive to the issues. The artists in the cast tell me they feel very well heard, comforted, and acknowledged when the subject matter makes them feel uncomfortable. 

The marketing for this opera has also been different than in the past. Merola is a separate non-profit entity from San Francisco Opera, and I manage the marketing, fundraising, and overall budget. We rely more heavily on social media marketing than we did in past years, and the word ‘rape’ is red-flagged and rejected by modern platforms. In many cases we simply can’t use the title of this piece. The publisher of this work declined our request to change the title to “Lucretia,” so we have had to become creative, and in some instances refer to it only as “a well-known searing drama by Benjamin Britten.” 

OW: Have you received much feedback in regards to the conversational forum you will hold after Saturday’s performance with San Francisco Women Against Rape (SFWAR)

JK: We will have a representative from San Francisco Women Against Rape join us to moderate a discussion with the audience, Carrie-Ann, Markus, and the performers. We are looking forward to sharing our thoughts on why Merola is presenting this particular piece this year, and are hoping to hear our audience’s feedback on what they have just witnessed. The topic is not a new one, but how we collectively feel about it as a society, and how we are responding, is changing. I think offering this opportunity to discuss how it resonates today will be a terrific way to reflect and review how we feel, and make this production that much more inclusive.

OW: Violence against women, specifically rape and suicide, is at the core of a lot of operas. How do you feel that Merola is evolving opera and assisting young artists when preparing for roles that exploit this violence?

JK: In many ways, Merola is the perfect place for these young artists to tackle difficult subject matters, in our safe and supportive environment. As you know, violence against women, rape, suicide can all be found in many classic and even modern operas. By bringing aboard professionals, including an intimacy coordinator, we can help our artists look at the work they are doing, discuss how to dissect the message of the piece, give them the language to ask for assistance and advocate for their personal boundaries. These are skills they will need, just as surely as developing vocal range and skills with languages, to ensure healthy and sustainable future careers.

OW: What do you feel is at the heart of your program? 

 JK: The heart of our program is the young artists and their development. We give the artists, at no cost, intensive training, including vocal coaching, language lessons, but also life-coaching, health and well-being, financial development and understanding. Our program includes one-on-one development with each artist. It’s important for them to learn how to live as an independent contractor and understand what these responsibilities are. Merola is probably one of the most intensive training programs in the world. Another excellent benefit is the relationships they develop with our members and our patrons. We offer many events in which our artists interact with the community. We’ve had patrons for over fifty years that follow their careers around the world after they leave Merola, and often fly to other cities worldwide to hear them perform. Our donors realize the value of our program –  if you take a look at our alumni list, you can see the impact it has had on young artists who went on to become major international talents.

OW: What do you want to see happening at Merola over the next five to ten years that continues to develop your diversity and opera’s diversity as well? What positive changes are being made to continue Merola’s legacy?

CAM: As a training program, our faculty and creative teams are at the center of what we do, and we will continue to engage industry-leading professionals who are not only wonderful, imaginative musicians, but are also true educators.

Artistically, we intend to keep exploring repertoire and types of programming that are new to Merola. We’ve already expanded the presentation of works by underrepresented composers and are looking forward to discovering more of that repertoire. Thanks to the generous support of our board and our donors, we’ve been able to do away with application fees and have expanded our live audition locations to make them more accessible to all young artists. We instituted a video pre-screening round in the audition process and had well over 1300 applications for this summer program. Markus and I screened each and every application video, and chose around 450 people to hear in live audition. From there, we selected the 28 artists who are with us this summer. Our goal is to ensure that no one has a barrier to being considered for our program. 

Equally important to us is the non-musical side of our program, in which we train people in what we call the ‘real-life topics’ like financial health and wellness, physical health and wellness, how to show up as leaders not only in their careers but also in their daily lives, and how to handle PR and social media concerns. This very important part of our faculty team is also comprised of industry leaders who have close ties to the operatic field. We believe that it is essential that we provide tools and training for the entire person, not just the musician, and we expect this side of our training offering to continue to grow. The more empowered our artists are in all these areas of their life, the more it will show in their work onstage. 

OW: I’m grateful I get to write an article that covers the wellbeing of singers and especially one that promotes the wellbeing of young singers. I think the earlier wellbeing training in singers begins, the more long lasting it becomes. What has been most eye-opening to you and what you do in this program? 

CAM: You hit the nail on the head. It is essential for young singers to have access to this information at the beginning of their careers. The training that we are providing assists them in building a solid foundation that will serve them well as they walk out into the industry. This will not only affect them as individuals, but will have a profoundly positive effect on the industry and beyond.

MB: We have our participants in San Francisco for 11 to 12 weeks. It’s a limited time, so we’ve crafted these additions to the training to have more of a through-line for the time that we do have them with us. Each participant has multiple group seminars and one-on-one sessions that make this training very intentional. We provide access to teachers and leaders so that they discuss things that they may not want to discuss in a group setting, so they can receive more individualized attention over the course of the summer.

OW: How has this year’s group of singers inspired you in new ways?

CAM: Each of our Merolini inspires us in different ways. We have been with Merola for three summers, with three very different cohorts. This summer’s group is filled with artists who are so willing to take risks, be vulnerable and learn. The word that keeps coming into my head is ‘magic.’ They are magical. They love to challenge themselves and challenge us. One of the things that we outline to them when they arrive is that they are here to grow. It’s a long festival, and it is very rewarding to see the trajectory for each individual while they’re here with us and after they leave us. We still remain in touch with a lot of our artists after they leave San Francisco. We hear from former Merolini on a regular basis, not only with updates, but with requests for guidance or feedback. It is wonderful to know the good work that Merola is doing is continuing after the artists leave the program. 

MB: Something that is really inspiring to us is how they so fully show up as themselves. I think this is a very positive part of the industry that has shifted and is still shifting as we move forward from the events of recent years. Artists are thankfully being encouraged to bring themselves completely into all spaces and are therefore showing up more authentically. This leads to more impactful performances and, generally, more fulfilled individuals.

CAM: We encourage that freedom here right from the first day. We talk with them when they arrive and let them know that we want, and expect: that they will bring their full selves into this process, not just the shiny parts.

OW: I find your response interesting and was speaking earlier with someone about this topic, while remembering how, especially during the pandemic, I made the decision to self-reflect on my own trajectory as an artist. I wanted to know more ways in which my being informed my art and if I wanted to stay on the path I was on, or make changes. I feel that by asking these questions myself, and knowing that other artists were doing the same, prepared us then for the renaissance that is happening right now. Especially the young artists. I’m grateful your program celebrates this level of excitement and celebration through the technical work they do and the internal work they do for themselves. Supporting this level of courage within a young artist is what I hope to see happening more often and I believe your program does the heavy lifting. What inspired you to join Merola and make a program like this possible?

MB: I went through many training programs as a young singer, including Merola, and have learned a great deal from those experiences. I also worked as an artist manager and managed a wide range of clients for eight years. Through that work, I was able to see how emerging artists needed to be supported most of all. Additionally, I received a life-coach certification almost ten years ago and have been offering coaching and consulting specifically for artists since then. I feel that all of these experiences have led me here to Merola. Being paired with Carrie-Ann has been a wonderful fit because this type of holistic training of the whole person is equally important to both of us. 

CAM: Throughout my career, I have always been fascinated by the one-on-one interaction that takes place in the rehearsal and coaching rooms, the experiences that people have during the preparation process, and what happens when performers walk out onto the stage. In addition to my work here at San Francisco Opera and Merola, I have an active performing career as a recital pianist, so I know it well from both sides. I am also an ICF certified life and leadership coach. My decision to devote more of my time to working with young artists was motivated, in part, by years of seeing singers and pianists who were waiting to be told who they were, both personally and artistically. I vowed long ago that one day, I would be part of the solution to that kind of disempowered thinking. Markus and I are paired very well indeed, as here in San Francisco, we’re intentionally creating a place where artists are celebrated for who they are and the individual gifts that they bring to this world. We encourage them to listen to their instinct and we, and our excellent faculty, assist them with translating that instinct into an informed performance. If more artists learn to trust and freely express themselves onstage, we’ll have many more electrifying performances on our stages. Active choices mean fewer passive performances, and that’s good news for everyone.

We encourage the Merolini to always strive for full expression and excellence, no matter which direction they want to take their lives. Not all of them will choose to pursue a career as a performing musician, but the foundation that they can begin to build as young artists will serve them throughout their lives no matter what path they choose. 

OW: What do you want audience members to take away most from this year’s performance of “The Rape of Lucretia?”

JK: Merola produced this opera during my second year as Executive Director. Back then, nobody thought twice about it. There wasn’t the concentrated focus on what this might do to a young artist who was performing in it. Not only the role of Lucretia, but also the role of Tarquinius and what he is required to do. Today, this has completely flipped. Now we are questioning whether or not to do this opera, and what can we do to make it safe? There has been a 180-degree change from 2013 to 2023. How we are approaching this opera is the take-away. It would be tragic for this high quality of a work to be dismissed because of its uncomfortable topics. A decision like that would then lead into not doing other operas, such as “Tosca,” “Madama Butterfly,” “Rigoletto,” “Don Giovanni,” “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” and countless others. Our young artists deserve to make themselves and their perspectives known through an opera such as this, which then helps audiences to better understand what this work is all about, what it means and how we must keep bringing up this discussion.  

CAM: We must talk about difficult topics rather than sweeping them under the rug and pretending they don’t happen. Art has always cast light upon both the beautiful and the not-beautiful sides of humanity. If these performances allow even one person to feel that their story is told, seen, or acknowledged, or if we touch one person’s heart in a way that they’re going to take a bigger stand against atrocity, then we’ve made an impact.

MB: It is an unfortunate reality that these themes and situations are still happening today, which is why it is relevant to tell this story now. Art has always been a mirror to show us the best and worst of humanity. It can help us see ourselves and examine our own stories, both as individuals and as a society. We want this important piece to be experienced by our participants and audiences, both for its relevance and inherent beauty.


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