By Elsa Tranter
San Francisco’s acclaimed Merola Opera Program has recently launched its 61st season, introducing audiences to the opera stars of tomorrow. Each summer up to 30 young singers and coaches, selected from hundreds of applicants, come to San Francisco, all expenses paid, for an intensive 12 weeks of lessons, coaching, advising, and performing. From among this group about a third are chosen at the end of the summer for the prestigious 2 year Adler Fellowship. Former Merola participants now on the world stage include Leona Mitchell, Anna Netrebko, Patricia Racette, Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson and Rolando Villlazon—and many others.
James Schwabacher was instrumental in the establishment and development of the Merola Opera Program and remained one of its biggest boosters for over 50 years, as well as serving on its board for most of that time. As a noted tenor and scholar he was passionate about identifying and nurturing the young singers of each generation.
On Thursday July 5th many of this year’s crop of recent arrivals gave a semi-staged concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to a sold-old crowd of 450. The orchestra, consisting of some members of the San Francisco Opera orchestra(and, I believe, some others), was ably and energetically conducted by former Merola apprentice coach Kathleen Kelly, from 1991, (the first woman and first American named as Director of Musical Studies at the Vienna State Opera). The orchestra sounded fine throughout the evening, though at times they overwhelmed the singers. The concert was directed by Aria Umezawa (Merola 2016) and the costumes were designed by Galen Till. All the details of the evening were well thought out and Ms. Umezawa made the most of the limited space available for the singers, who were mostly in front of the orchestra on the raised stage. She used the back, sides, and the rest of the hall occasionally and effectively to expand the space and and give us a chance to hear the singers from many angles.
The program opened with scenes from Samuel Barber’s 1950s opera Vanessa (winner of the Pulitzer prize), sung in English with English supertitles. The libretto was written by Barber’s friend (and fellow opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti). This was the most modern music of the evening and was well performed by the four major singers. They were Mezzo-Soprano Megan Gray from Cedar Falls Iowa, whose clarion voiced Erika totally filled the room to great dramatic effect (in the famous ballad “Must the Winter Come so Soon”; Soprano Brittany Nickell from Coral Springs Florida, whose singing as the title character was also very clear and emotion-filled. The two male roles were sung by Bass-Baritone Andrew Moore from Point Pleasant New Jersey as the majordomo and Tenor Brian Michael Moore from Cincinnati Ohio as Anatol. Their parts were less clearly defined and less memorably sung. Certainly the women’s parts, as they struggle between their ideals and settling for what has to offer, had a greater impact on the audience and the men’s parts were more supporting.
Next on the program was a selection of scenes from Puccini’s one act opera Il Tabarro (the Cloak) which is part of his triptych that includes Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. All three of these operas are very popular and the music was very familiar and very ‘Puccini-esque’, full of pathos and melodrama. All of the many singers in this section were up to the task and were excellent. They included the lovers Marlen Nahhas, Soprano, from Houston Texas in the role of Giorgetta; and Christopher Colmenero, Tenor, from Burlington Vermont, in the role of Luigi. Both of these singers seemed fully prepared for the big time and were terrific. Megan Grey returned in the role of Frugola opposite Andrew Moore as Talpa; their duet was moving and beautifully sung as well. Giorgetta’s husband Michele was emotionally sung by Baritone Jaeman Yoon from Seoul South Korea. Rounding out the cast were Soprano Kendra Berentsen from Portland Oregon; Tenor WooYoung Yoon from Seoul South Korea; and Brian Michael Moore. The staging was done very creatively and to great effect.
Following the intermission, we were treated to scenes from Bizet’s early opera, Les pecheurs de perles —The Pearl Fishers. Like Il Tabarro, and like so many operas, this one concerns two men who love the same woman, but in this case the two men are best friends and ‘blood brothers’ which makes it doubly tragic (aren’t all the best operas tragic?). The setting is Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and the three characters are Nadir, sung by WooYoung Yoon, his childhood friend Zurga, sung by Baritone SeokJong Baek from Jeon-Ju, North Jeolla South Korea and Leila, the Hindu priestess that they both love, sung by Kendra Berentsen. The famous baritone duet was very well sung, though the emotional fervor in the body language was less than perfect. The duet in which Nadir and Leila declared their love was quite touching and more moving. There was little staging for these scenes, but the music carried the day.
The final opera was Mozart’s Don Giovanni, where we heard the final, dinner, scene. Don Giovanni was sung by Baritone Xiaomeng Zhang, from Wenzhou, Zhejiang, China; his manservant Leporello was sung by Andrew Moore, and several others of the Merolini played the Dons, the Donnas and the servants. Everyone’s voice was loud and clear, both alone and in the ensemble. Here there was more staging and it was clever and effective. The opera and the evening concluded with a rousing chorus (after the knock on the door and Don Giovanni’s descent into hell).
The evening was a big success, the sponsors and supporters of the singers were happy, and the rest of the audience left feeling relieved that the future of opera is in such good hands (and voices).
Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years. She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly. Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.