Intense Opportunity : The Merola Opera Program

If the Merola Opera Program had to be described in two words, the consensus among its participants seems to be that those words would be “intense” and “amazing.” Established in 1957 and operating under the auspices of the San Francisco Opera Center, Merola is the first step in a series of career-building opportunities that include the Western Opera Theater (WOT) tour, the Adler Fellowships, Brown Bag Opera, the Showcase Series, and Schwabacher Debut Recitals. It is also, according to alumni, a fishbowl environment in which young singers learn, perform, and comport themselves in near-constant association with some of the music world’s top artists and decision makers.

Richard Harrell is a singer who taught and directed at Juilliard before becoming the director of the San Francisco Opera Center. “(Merola) operates at the very highest level of an international opera house, but we also like to view it as a laboratory–a safe place for young artists to explore and polish their craft.”

Merola is a summer program consisting of 11 weeks of training and performances. Approximately 23 singers, four apprentice coaches, and one apprentice stage director are selected by national audition. The 1999 season participants included seven sopranos, four mezzos, two bass baritones, and three each of tenors, baritones, and basses. Travel expenses, lodgings (usually a carefully screened home stay), and a stipend of approximately $175 per week are provided. Following the summer season, many “Merolini,” as program participants are called, continue on to the autumn WOT tour.

Participants receive training in musical style and interpretation, accompaniment, acting and stage technique, movement, languages, and diction from an all-star collection of coaches, conductors, directors, and other experts associated with the world’s top opera houses. The 1999 faculty numbered 23, including Régine Crespin, Lotfi Mansouri, Warren Jones, David Edwards, Richard Harrell, Graziella Sciutti, Scott Bergeson, William Lacey, Ian Robertson, and Patrick Summers.

Public and private master classes and one-on-one coachings provide the Merolini with a great deal of exposure to legendary artists. Thomas Hampson, Hans Hotter, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Joan Sutherland, and Leontyne Price have numbered among Merola’s master teachers. Singers are also assigned an apprentice coach, who learns their repertoire and accompanies them for all master classes, lessons, and auditions throughout the summer. “You get to coach constantly,” says Philip Horst, a bass baritone and first-time Merolini who sang the role of Mustafa in 1999’s The Italian Girl in Algiers, and will alternate Don Giovanni and Leporello on this fall’s WOT tour. “You work with people who are really doing it and can give you a point of reference. What’s really great about Merola is that you’re just doing what you do and doing it intensely, getting feedback, and working with people from whom you can learn.”

This constant exposure also means constant scrutiny. “When you’re a Merolini you’re watched all the time.” Suzanne Ramo is a two-time Merola veteran who sang Violetta with WOT in 1998 and Elvira in The Italian Girl in Algiers at Merola this year. “You don’t ever get an emotional break. You may have three different coachings in one day, and every coach is telling you something different and picking on your voice. That can be frustrating and tiring.”

Yet the exposure can result in major career opportunities. Ramo was cast as a Rhinemaiden and the Forest Bird in San Francisco’s Ring, after General Director Lotfi Mansouri heard her in auditions and master classes given especially for the Merolini. Harrell says that on average about 16 of the 23 Merolini continue on the WOT tour. “And generally you’ll have about five who become Adler Fellows each year.”

Performance opportunities include a total of five performances of two fully staged and costumed operas, plus the Grand Finale concert, in a variety of indoor and outdoor venues. Generally the touring opera is done in English; the other is in the original language. Previous seasons included La Cenerentola and The Magic Flute. Next year’s shows are Rigoletto and Die Fledermaus. Fledermaus is the touring opera.

“First and foremost, we try to choose repertoire which can be reasonably cast with young artists,” says Harrell. “Also we have to pay attention to what could reasonably be sold on the tour. This is the only live opera many of our venues get, so it has to be relatively standard rep. Then we look at how do we create an even ensemble? For instance, if we do Don Giovanni, then we probably should choose another opera that has a strong leading mezzo. And we did–The Italian Girl in Algiers.” But he stresses all voice types are welcome at Merola, even if there isn’t much for them to sing in the operas. “If there’s nothing for them, we bring them anyway, work with them, and give them fantastic assignments in the closing concerts. We would never turn away a dramatic voice.”

Alumni say that learning and performing opportunities are well distributed. “Generally, you get to sing for every teacher, and if you don’t get a master class you get a private coaching,” Ramo says. “It’s possible to go to Merola and only sing chorus, but generally that only happens if you’re going to have a role on tour.” The distribution of roles is carefully planned, according to Harrell. “Of the 22 people at Merola this summer, 20 had featured or leading roles. The other two people were very prominently featured during the final concert.”

Despite the intensity of the program, singers say that the atmosphere is extremely supportive. “We choose faculty that way. Lotfi loves to be with the young artists. This program has the total support of the administration,” says Harrell. “And the fans, the board of directors, and ancillary people are incredibly passionate supporters–groupies in the best sense. These singers feel valued, and they are.”

Horst agrees. “Everyone loves you. Your sponsors want to take you out. Sometimes you’re spread a little thin, but it’s a wonderful problem to have.”

A few other problems aren’t quite as wonderful. Horst admits that, for a veteran of several other apprenticeships, some of the movement and diction classes can be a bit repetitive. He also acknowledges that some people may have a hard time with the no-holds-barred assessment of their package. “One can take offense sometimes when they tell you quite frankly what needs to change. They don’t mince words,” he said, adding that he himself was not offended. “They sort of mold you, but I think it’s fabulous.”

And it’s vital to check that diva attitude at the door. “If you’re doing something wrong and you’re a cranky person, you may not find out until very late in the game, if ever,” Ramo warns. “They told us on the first day, ‘It’s okay to have an artistic personality, but if your personality interferes with other people’s work, then you need to check it.’” Merolini who failed to heed this warning have, apparently, been asked to leave.

Still, these are minor glitches in the grand scheme. “You have an attachment to one of the best houses in the States,” says Horst. “I was able to hear James Morris rehearsing for the Ring. I could talk to Lotfi Mansouri. It’s a lot of back and forth, getting to know each other–getting a foot in the door. It’s one of the best programs.”

Merola accepts singers between the ages of 20 and 34 (cutoff is June 1 of the program year), but Harrell says that’s a guideline rather than an absolute. Exceptions are made, for example, for unusual voice types, such as true basses or contraltos. Annual auditions take place in November and December, and audition cities and dates are announced August 1. Applicants are screened for overall experience, and recommendations from current musical authorities receive heavy consideration. Singers may audition for the programs of the Opera Center a maximum of three times, and participate in Merola twice. Publicity materials state that Merola is the only possible point of entry, but occasionally artists are tapped for the WOT tour first.

“Most Merola participants are in grad school, or have finished and already have some professional experience,” says Harrell, admitting that there are always exceptions. “A lot of them have already done Santa Fe or Glimmerglass. Generally participants have a reasonable grasp of diction, basic acting, and movement.”

Who should not apply? Singers who have already performed leading roles with major regional companies, have management, have finished the Met, Chicago or Houston programs, or have been successfully freelancing for a couple of years. Harrell smiles. “As tempting as it is,” he adds.

Who wouldn’t be tempted by the opportunities Merola offers? “I don’t know of a singer who would turn it down,” says Harrell. “These are the people you’re going to be working with the rest of your career.”

“Merola is about teaching young artists how far they can go because they’re always pushed to the limit,” Ramo says. “It tests their endurance physically and emotionally every day, and when they leave, they know so much more about what they can do–as artists and as human beings.”

Classical Singer will list application deadlines three months in advance. Singers, accompanists and stage directors are welcome to apply.

Linda C. Cotman

Lina C. Cotman was associate editor for Classical Singer magazine from 1998 to 1999.