Opera of Tomorrow

This article was originally published in Classical Singer magazine. To subscribe to the print magazine, go to www.csmusic.info/subscribe.

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an Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program and Adler Fellowship welcome a new artistic director in Carrie-Ann Matheson.

Carrie-Ann Matheson has tapped into a knack for nurturing emerging talent throughout her musical career—something it appears she will continue to hone well into the future.

“I’ve always had a great interest in really championing young artists,” she says. “I’ve had a very active recital career performing with singers, but it is especially rewarding to be one on one in a room with a singer or pianist, helping them discover the keys to their artistry.”arrie-Ann Matheson has tapped into a knack for nurturing emerging talent throughout her musical career—something it appears she will continue to hone well into the future.

Matheson’s deep passion for connecting with young classical singers in the prime of their artistic development recently led to an appointment as artistic director of San Francisco Opera (SFO) Center’s prestigious Merola Opera Program and Adler Fellowship, both longtime esteemed training grounds for the professional singers of tomorrow.

It’s a role she’ll assume in January 2021 and one that is fitting with how she views the direction of the future of opera, helping San Francisco Opera continue to stand out, as well as elevate the offerings of other Young Artist Programs—or so she hopes.

“It is my hope that all of the major training programs for young artists can come together with a similar goal,” Matheson says. “That we can all share information and ideas to better prepare future opera artists.”

The Road to Opera

Matheson—who has established herself as an in-demand collaborative pianist, performing in recital with the likes of Rolando Villazón, Jonas Kaufmann, Piotr Beczała, Benjamin Bernheim, Diana Damrau, and Joyce DiDonato—began her musical journey as a solo pianist before accompanying instrumentalists.

Opera, she says, was not immediately on her radar.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to work in opera,” the 48-year-old says. “I’m from a small town in Eastern Canada where opera did not have a big presence. A lot of my early collaborative experience was playing with brass and wind players.”

It was one experience accompanying a trombone player, however, that began to break new ground in her playing.

“He noticed that I had a lot of drama in my playing and encouraged me to explore the operatic repertoire,” Matheson says.

Still, she wasn’t an immediate convert. It wasn’t until Matheson was playing for an audition at the Music Academy of the West that her dramatic interpretation at the keyboard caught the ear of renowned mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, who reiterated: “You need to be playing for singers.”

“My immediate response was, ‘I don’t know anything about playing for singers.’ But Marilyn persisted and said, ‘Trust me.’ That was how it all began,” Matheson relates. “Marilyn Horne really became one of my greatest mentors and has been an extremely important person in my life.”

After earning degrees from the University of Prince Edward Island, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the Manhattan School of Music and becoming a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s renowned Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, Matheson found a home at the Met. There, she served as part of the company’s full-time music staff in the roles of assistant conductor, pianist, prompter, and vocal coach.

From 2014 to 2020, she extended her music career to Europe, joining the conducting staff at Opernhaus Zürich. She has also collaborated with the Atkins Young Artists Program at the Mariinsky Theatre, the Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Music Academy of the West, the Aspen Music Festival, and the International Vocal Arts Institute.

Soon, San Francisco Opera came calling.

“When San Francisco Opera approached me about the position, it felt like the right time for me to devote more time into this part of my career,” Matheson says. “The Merola Opera Program and the Adler Fellowship have been at the forefront of young artist training in America for as long as I can remember. The combination of the already excellent standards in both those programs and the visionary leadership team at San Francisco Opera is what really sealed it for me. SFO is a place that is passionate about empowering young artists and that’s exactly the kind of program I want to be involved with.”

A Rich History

One of the oldest operatic training grounds in the United States, Merola Opera Program saw its start in 1957 when San Francisco Opera’s second general director, Kurt Herbert Adler, envisioned a training ground for singers that wouldn’t see them having to venture to Europe in order to further their careers. It would also serve to honor Adler’s predecessor, Gaetano Merola.

Since its inception, the program has grown in the course of six decades from a four-week program, drawing 14 singers from the Western United States, to annually attracting nearly 1,000 applicants internationally.

Today’s program boasts approximately 23 singers, five apprentice coaches, and one apprentice stage director to participate in the 12-week summer program—free of charge and led by nearly 30 internationally esteemed artists.

In addition to career building, advanced training, and performance opportunities, the program also offers continuing support for career development in the way of career grants from $6,000 to $12,000 for five years upon completion of Merola. The grants can be used for auditions, travel, headshots, vocal coaching, and other elements essential in helping young artists transition from their training to the professional world.

Alumni of the program include a decorated list of operatic luminaries, including Leah Crocetto, Anna Netrebko, Ailyn Pérez, Patricia Racette, Nadine Sierra, Ruth Ann Swenson, Elza van den Heever, Carol Vaness, Deborah Voigt, Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Dolora Zajick, Brian Asawa, Brian Jagde, Stuart Skelton, Rolando Villazón, Thomas Hampson, Quinn Kelsey, Patrick Summers, and others.

The Adler Fellowship, which was founded in 1977 and selects its fellows from artists who have participated in the Merola Opera Program, offers additional advanced intensive training, including coaching, professional seminars, and a range of performance opportunities for singers and pianists.

The Future of Opera

In continuing the tradition of both programs as well as maintaining her private coaching studio, Matheson says she hopes to incorporate a holistic approach to career development for young artists.

“We want to continue the excellent musical standard already set,” she says. “But we also hope to enhance it a little bit by incorporating training that includes a more intensive look at nonmusical issues young artists face—things that artists have to deal with as a person, in addition to their training as a singer or pianist.”

Specifically, Matheson says she’d like to see a program that not only helps singers continue to hone their voice and stage craft but addresses issues like financial management, mental health and wellness, physical health, time management, media relations, and branding.

They’re topics that often have taken a backseat to ongoing musical and performance training in many Young Artist Programs, Matheson says.

“I would say that there are training programs that could do better,” she says. “For example, when I was a young artist a million years ago, I was provided excellent musical training and one seminar in finance during the two-year program. I had no idea about things like budgeting and paying my taxes.

“So much of having an opera career right now is knowing how to actually build a career. Singers must have business savvy. But they also need to know things like how to take care of themselves on the road and time management. How much time do they need to prepare a role? How do they structure their time?

“The industry is different than it was even one generation ago. Young artists today are more responsible now for designing their own careers. And as educators, we want to do our best to help our students take charge of their lives in all those areas.”

In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, Matheson says she believes this will become even more of an emphasis as singers move forward in an industry that has been shaken to its core.

“Being able to draw upon a complete set of skills and resources is essential more now than ever,” she says. “I passionately believe that if people are empowered enough, they can stand out and do great things even in today’s challenging world. What I want to see is a lot of really empowered, confident artists leaving our program. That to me is really the goal—and, of course, helping them to make music in a way in which they can shine in doing what they do best, and that they can take their steps onto the stage not being afraid of feeling ‘less than.’”

Learn More:

  • Merola Opera Program: merola.org
  • Adler Fellowship: sfopera.com/about-us/opera-center/adler-fellowship-program
  • San Francisco Opera: sfopera.com
  • Carrie-Ann Matheson: carrieannmatheson.com
Megan Gloss

Megan Gloss is a classical singer and journalist based in the Midwest.