Merola’s ‘Proving Ground’ for Opera Future

San Francisco's Merola Opera Program

Written by:
Janos Gereben
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San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program does a world of good for super-talented young singers about to launch their careers, but this time an event might have given them an incorrect impression about what to expect from music directors.

At the Aug. 10 master class in the S.F. Conservatory of Music Concert Hall, the singers worked with someone who is the very opposite of the Toscanini-class conductor with a Temper, capital T, the opposite of pamper.

Only 35 (and looking considerably younger) but already with an international reputation, Scotland’s Rory Macdonald treats singers with kid gloves and exquisite politeness. He doesn’t correct anyone, he makes suggestions prefaced with “if I may” and “giving just another perspective.”

Toscanini-type temper tantrums on the podium are rare today, but so are maestros not raising their voices. Of course, when you speak with somebody who speaks softly, you may pay more attention. The Merolini tonight certainly did.

Master classes are part of member events (for contributors) of one of the world’s oldest, largest, and most extensive advanced training programs for young singers. Public events include staged operas – including last week’s Cosi fan tutte, and the always-fascinating Grand Finale coming in the War Memorial Opera House on Aug. 20.

Mezzo Tara Curtis, of Kansas City, MO, is returning for her second year in Merola, and she calls the program “a life-changing event… The ability to work with the top people in our field, to receive feedback from them and gauge what direction they think you’re heading is a huge opportunity. It’s as if I was given permission by the most exemplary artists in the business to be a member of their group.

“The grand finale was by far the most memorable moment for me of last season. To stand on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House and perform with a full orchestra in that majestic theater… it was a complete dream come true. The summer was such an emotional and fulfilling journey and it all culminated beautifully in a moment of musical drama.”

The program was established in 1954, expanded to its present form in 1957, by Kurt Herbert Adler, San Francisco Opera’s famed second general director, and named after his predecessor and the founder of the company, Gaetano Merola. It now provides 10 weeks of coaching, voice lessons, theater training, language instructions, rehearsals, and performance opportunities to 23 singers, five apprentice coaches, and one apprentice stage director, representing four countries. They’ve been selected from over 800 applicants from around the world. Merola is running on an annual operating budget of $3 million.

Among the more than a thousand former Merolini are such stars of opera as Laura Claycomb, Mark Delevan, Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Jill Grove, Nancy Gustafson, Thomas Hampson, Janis Martin, Leona Mitchell, Sylvia McNair, Anna Netrebko, Patricia Racette, Michael Schade, Kurt Streit, Ruth Ann Swenson, Jess Thomas, Carol Vaness, Rolando Villazón, Deborah Voigt, Janet Williams, Dolora Zajick, and many others.

Led by soprano Sheri Greenawald since 2002, the Merola Program has an impressive faculty, including local and visiting artists, such as Vinson Cole, Jane Eaglen, Warren Jones, Martin Katz, Peter Grunberg, Chuck Hudson, Bruce Lamott, Patricia Kristof Moy, Kevin Murphy, Barbara Scott, César Ulloa, and Christopher Verdosci.

Macdonald, having worked as assistant conductor with Sir Mark Elder (Hallé), Iván Fischer (Budapest), in Lyon and Paris, led major orchestras in Europe, Canada, and Japan; conducted works at Canadian Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Royal Opera, Glyndebourne, and elsewhere.

At the Wednesday master class, he got down to work immediately by greeting the first singer, Shannon Jennings, a small, slender soprano from Orlando, FL, who seems to have an industrial grade amplifier in her throat, exhibiting a stunning projection even shortly after a bout with laryngitis. Accompanied by Jonathan Brandani, an apprentice coach from Lucca, Italy. The aria was “Ain’t it a pretty night?” from Carlisle Floyd’d Susannah.

After joining the audience applause for the first run-through, Macdonald congratulated Jennings, and spoke about the “contrast between innocence and nervousness,” asked the soprano and the pianist to start slower, “give it a little swing, take more time, stretch it,” spoke of how “gorgeous” the song is, “how like a lullaby.”

After asking the singer how she feels about a repetition and suggesting “more nervousness,” Macdonald beamed with pleasure when Jennings presented an obviously improved version.

The conductor had little to fix about Andrew G. Manea’s performance of “Largo al factotum,” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, the baritone from Troy, MI, obviously having absorbed every sound and movement of the old crowd-pleaser. Macdonald suggested shorter notes at one place in order to elongate the ones after, once again saying that it’s “just a matter of interpretation.”

The evening’s most unusual and memorable portion was Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen’s performance of “Dawn! Still Darkness,” from Jonathon Dove’s Flight, the contemporary opera about refugees stuck at an airport. The young, enormously talented countertenor from Brooklyn (who had undertaken an unusual year of “self-directed study”) cast a spell over the concert hall, and pleased Macdonald – who spoke of his special regard for the opera – to no end.

His suggestion to the singer: not to have the arms rigidly by his side, and then conductor, singer, and pianist Nicolo Sbuels from Udine, Italy, engaged in a lengthy discussion of a single note that’s “almost the same as from the piano, but not quite.” The resolution to Cohen: “Enjoy the dissonance.”

There was quite a lot more in the master class, but the deeply personal, haunting words of Tara Curtis came to mind at the end, words she spoke on her return to Merola:

“This year, I hope to walk in feeling less of a fraud. To realize that I earned my place there and to be ready and willing each day to give my very best, without the fear of failure. I sing scenes of two characters I have been eagerly awaiting to portray (Le Prieure in Dialogues des Carmélites and Baba the Turk in The Rake’s Progress) in the Schwabacher Summer Concert. I cannot wait to explore these incredible women with the aid of the amazing faculty and guest artists that populate our time at Merola.”


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