By Elsa Tranter
San Francisco’s Merola training program is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the US. It was founded in 1957 by S.F. Opera’s first general director, Gaetano Merola. Since then it has given a career boost to hundreds of well-known singers and coaches. The program is a 12-week summer program for about 20-plus young people, some of whom go on to become Adler Fellows (named after the next general director, Kurt Herbert Adler); that is a two-year program.
This year’s young people came from many parts of the US and many other countries—they were chosen from several hundred applicants. They were uniformly good in their final performance of the summer. Earlier they had appeared in fully staged operas, which I was unable to attend, so this was my first chance to see them on stage. They were impressive.
The stage at the opera house was set with the ship from the fall production of Billy Budd (opening September 7) and the evening’s program was directed by Merola apprentice stage director Greg Eldridge, from Melbourne, Australia.
The evening of August 17 opened with a spoken quote from Shakespeare’s play Henry V and ended with another Shakespearean quote, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream—reminding the audience that we were to be transported to other places and were then brought back to this world. This nicely bookended the evening and there was a lot of music that we associate with Shakespeare as well. The first of those was an aria from Romeo et Juliette sung by mezzo-soprano Brennan Blankenship, from Klein Texas; this opera will be opening the San Francisco Opera’s fall season on September 6. It was followed by an aria from I Capuleti e i Montecchi sung by soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh from Langley, British Columbia. And in the second half of the program we heard music from The Merry Wives of Windsor sung by baritone Edward Laurenson from Auckland, New Zealand and bass-baritone Rafael Porto from Sao Paulo Brazil (as a lusty Falstaff); a scene from Hamlet powerfully sung by mezzo-soprano Alice Chung from Loma Linda, California, baritone Timothy Murray from Whitefish Bay Wisconsin and bass Stefan Egerstrom from Brooklyn Center Minnesota; as well as from the opera Falstaff an aria sung by soprano Patricia Westley from Santa Barbara, California and soprano Esther Tonea from Buford Georgia (with exceptional skill); and finally the finale of the Finale also from Falstaff with all the Merolini on stage together.
One of the highlights for me was the aptly named Elisa Sunshine (soprano) from San Clemente, California singing a sprightly Marie from La Fille du Regiment opposite bass-baritone Andrew Dwan from Mountain View, California. Another was a dramatic aria from Dialogues des Carmelites powerfully sung by soprano Amber R. Monroe from Youngstown, Ohio and Alice Chung.
The evening opened with mezzo soprano Cara Collins from Amarillo, Texas and soprano Anna Dugan from Cranford, New jersey reprieving one of the wonderful duets from Der Rosenkavalier which brought back memories of Susan Graham and Renee Fleming on stage and screen.
Following that was a scene from I Puritani sung by baritone Laureano Quant from Barranquilla Colombia and tenor Victor Starsky from Queens New York. Brandon Scott Russell gave a powerful and poignant aria from Rusalka; Esther Tonea, tenor Michael Day from Rockford Illinois and Edward Laurenson (accompanied by apprentice coach William Woodward from Normal Illinois on harpsichord) performed a scene from Cosi Fan Tutte; and soprano Chelsea Lehnea from Chattanooga Tennessee, tenor Salvatore Atti from Buffalo New York and Rafael Porto sang a moving scene from Maria Stuarda. Mr. Atti and baritone Jeff Byrnes from Baton Rouge Louisiana sang a heart-rending father-son duet from La Traviata. Other performers included soprano Hyeree Shin from Cheon-an South Korea in a scene from La Finta Giardiniera and Stefan Egerstrom, Alice Chung, Victor Starsky in a scene from La Juive, and Edith Grossman and Nicholas Huff in an aria from La Belle Helene.
The orchestra was conducted ably if not brilliantly by George Manahan. The flow of the evening, tying in one scene to another seamlessly, is a big tribute to the director. Bravo to Mr. Eldridge and bravi tutti Merolini! Another star-studded crop of future leaders of the opera world. It restores one’s spirit to hear so much wonderful singing.
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.