The Adler Fellowship: : Perspectives on a Top-Tier Training Program

The success of a classical singer is built upon a foundation of training, mentorship, and opportunity, and this program at San Francisco Opera is well known as an unparalleled place to garner all three. The Adler Fellowship program is a two-year performance-oriented program for young professionals who have already completed the San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Opera Program, and the young singers who participate in it are without question the best of the best among aspiring opera singers.

The program comprises approximately 8 to 12 artists per year, and also includes coach/pianists as well as the occasional stage director, such as Jose Maria Condemi (Adler Fellow 2001, 2002). The program began as the Affiliate Artists Opera Program in 1977 with Carol Vaness as one of the participants and later took the name of its illustrious founder, Kurt Herbert Adler (not to be confused with the longtime Met chorus master Kurt Adler, whose name singers know well from his compilations of operatic arias for Schirmer).

Adler was born in Vienna in 1905, the son of a textile manufacturer. By the age of 20, aided by years of study in Vienna’s Academy of Music, Conservatory, and University, Adler made his conducting debut. His career in his home country began auspiciously with posts at the Vienna Volksoper and an assistantship to Toscanini in Salzburg in 1936 and 1937. But in 1938 he fled the impending dangers imposed on Jews in Austria by the increasingly powerful National Socialist Party. He came to the U.S. to conduct in Chicago and it was in 1943 that San Francisco Opera’s founder and director, Gaetano Merola, invited him to join the company as chorus master.

Adler would eventually succeed Merola and serve as director of the company from 1953 to 1981. Adler’s activities at the company and beyond reveal a man broadly passionate about music education and developing young talent. In addition to beginning San Francisco Opera’s training programs as early as 1954, he served as advisor to the San Francisco Conservatory, conducted youth concerts, and organized school performances across the Bay Area. He was also a lecturer in music at the University of California–Berkeley, where his papers are archived.

The preface to an oral history compiled by the university sums up the general opinion of his professional temperament—which famously clashed with that of Maria Callas, resulting in the cancellation of her company debut. (Callas sang two concerts in San Francisco, but never did a role with the company.)

“Few would disagree that Adler was a difficult, tyrannical character or that he created crisis after crisis just to keep the operatic juices flowing,” reads the preface. “Of his legendary temper he said that it bade for ‘artistic tension, which is good for success.’”

The stars among Adler alumni—David Lomelí (2009, 2010), Ruth Ann Swenson (1983, 1984), Patricia Racette (1989, 1990), Dolora Zajick (1984, 1985), and numerous other A List singers—prove that to one degree or another, Adler was correct. Whatever his methods, his interest in singers’ development was keen. Soprano Janet Williams (1988, 1989) recalls an encounter with Adler after a performance as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi when she was in the Merola program. “He approached me and told me he’d like me to learn the role of Giorgetta from Il tabarro, the only opera of Il trittico in which I had not been assigned a role. When I questioned whether it would be a good idea for me to sing such a spinto role, he told me he thought I should learn roles from the entire Trittico, even if I were suited to sing only one or two of the roles. It taught me a great deal about learning what the composer has in mind when he or she composes separate pieces associated with a cycle or whole group—how much one could learn from the composer’s style and musical language.”

At the fellowship helm these days is veteran soprano and voice teacher Sheri Greenawald, who had a major international singing career herself and now fosters and encourages the young singers whom she lovingly refers to as “our kids.” Heidi Melton (2009), who is now enjoying an international career as a sought-after dramatic soprano and Wagnerian, says of Greenawald’s lessons, “She was an amazing teacher for me during that time in helping me to, how shall I put this, drive the large truck that I was given.” Current Adler Fellow baritone Hadleigh Adams says of Greenawald, “Her door is always open at any time to talk about any issue.”

Greenawald’s priorities are clear. “We still are a training program. It isn’t just an artists in residence program,” she says. However talented they may be when they arrive, she wants to help the Adler Fellows continue to grow technically. “I feel very strongly that you have to work with them on a vocal level. To assume that students can leave their teachers and be out on their own right away in their early 20s or mid 20s is a little naive.”

The singers are also given lessons from master teacher César Ulloa. “When we arrive we all see César for an hour each Friday,” says Adams. “[He is a] great technician and has an incredible mind. He doesn’t want to interfere with anyone’s technique. He’s keeping things healthy.”

“You really do have to keep tabs on them because things are changing rapidly,” says Greenawald. “There’s a lot of growth happening for you in your 20s. I hope every Adler goes out . . . singing at a higher level.”

Greenawald is also keenly aware of the particular challenges singers face in the industry today. “Let’s put it out on the table: the little black dress syndrome,” she says. “The weight loss issue. My friends who sing at the Met, it’s all about the HD diet. Everybody goes on their HD diet. So that’s what opera singers are confronting all the time. Luckily one of our donors is a PhD psychologist, so we have a list of psychologists who can help them with that. One of my current Adlers just lost 75 pounds, so we try to help them cope with that new demand. It may not be a new demand but a more publicized demand. The discrimination probably went on in the past but nobody talked about it. Now it’s all out in the open: you’ve gotta be skinny. So that has changed the business tremendously, so we do help with counseling about that.”

With any major opportunity come high expectations, and the demands on the Adler Fellows are substantial. “It’s easy to think, ‘Oh, I know this well enough,’” says Adams. “But you’ve got to know the music as well as the conductor before you start. It’s got to be in your body. Everything on the score, every marking has to be in the way you sing it from day one, and there’s no room for that not to be the case. If your conductor says to you they want it legato not staccato, you can get it wrong once, maybe. But if you’re told twice, it’s problematic and people remember.”

“You have no idea how many people get to a gig and they haven’t learned their music,” says Melton. “They kind of know it and they’re not off book. When I was an Adler, this was not an option. It was instilled in you that no matter how good you are—or think you are—it doesn’t matter at the end of the day if you’re not doing your work. So for me, it’s about making sure that I’m prepared and coached and know the languages and know what I’m singing about, and I’m off book and ready to go.”

The Fellows’ rigorous preparation is facilitated by ample coaching in languages and music by people with extensive knowledge of the repertoire. These relationships can have a career-defining impact, as in the case of Melton and pianist/coach John Parr, who is also her colleague now in Karlsruhe, Germany. “My first year as an Adler coaching with John Parr, he said to me, ‘Hmm, have you ever thought about Wagner?’” Melton relates. “When he said that, it opened up a whole world for me, and it’s the world that is really taking me places. It’s not every day you open up a score and you feel like it was written for you. That’s a turning point.”

Young singers in this program can find themselves swimming in the deep end very quickly. Adams knew he wanted to come to San Francisco from the time he saw the DVD of the company’s production of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire when he was 18. In his very first production when he arrived, the program’s “first Kiwi” fresh from his training in New Zealand and Australia, he was onstage in a production of Les contes d’Hoffmann with Natalie Dessay. One of Melton’s biggest opportunities came when she was asked to step in for an ailing Patricia Racette in the Verdi Requiem.

Despite their success, neither Melton nor Adams describes anything remotely like complacency at being an Adler, at having arrived. On the contrary, both conveyed a deep sense of responsibility and gratitude. As Adams puts it, when he found out he was being made an Adler, he was elated. But he also thought, “OK, I’ve gotta work so much harder now to be ready.”

With such prestige at a relatively early age, it seems fair to wonder if there have been any problems with egotism over the years. “We’ve had years when there’s been more conflict within the kids themselves, but not in recent years,” Greenawald says. “I’m always emphasizing to them about fellowship because you can’t be on stage by yourself that often, so you better get along with your colleagues. I’ve had a couple of Adlers stay only one year because they realized this isn’t what they wanted to do.”

Case in point, tenor Jeffrey Thomas, who was an Adler Fellow the first year the program was given that name in 1982, stayed only one year. He went on to become an early music conductor, notably and currently for American Bach Soloists. “I never felt like I fit in completely among aspiring opera singers,” Thomas once said.

“It is a moment of reckoning when you realize, ‘Yes, I really want to do this,’ or you realize it’s a challenge you don’t want to take on,” says Greenawald. “Your 20s and even your early 30s are a time when we’re all, not just singers, busy defining ourselves. There’s a lot going on for these singers while they’re here—a lot of growth, a lot of trial and error, and just searching constantly. Of course, that’s what musicians have to do.”

Another thing an Adler has to do constantly is audition. A singer in the program can do as many as 30 auditions in a season, as the house arranges for agents and other important industry people coming through town to hear them. “We help them by getting them in so many auditions that by the end of their fellowship, doing an audition is no big deal,” Greenawald explains. “They’ve done so many, they’re inured to that process.”

The program is comprehensive in its support. “Anyone fortunate enough to land in the Adler Fellowship program found themselves immediately on the ‘right grapevine,’” says Williams. “Every opportunity was given and no money spared to make sure Adler Fellows got a good start in the business. One singer received a grant to go to Germany to study Lulu, another to Italy to study Italian for an upcoming role. My own good fortune was a grant to go to Paris and study with Régine Crespin—an opportunity that led to my European debut in Lyon, France. We were each assigned generous sponsors who made sure any need was met. Nothing was too trivial or too much—from a sponsor who took us to various dress shops around the cities convincing the shop owners to donate gowns to arranging major agent auditions before the program was over. No one left the Adler program without a major agent working on their behalf.”

These days, things may be somewhat different. “We like to see that we can help them get management before they leave, [but] it doesn’t always work out,” says Greenawald. “The management business has changed. It’s tough in this economy.”

With so many international participants, the prospect of the program ending can be daunting. “With an O-1 visa, which is an exceptional talent visa, you can’t work in any other field,” says Adams. “If I want to stay here, and I have a month off, I can’t go work in a restaurant or bar. I’m looking at staying here or going to Germany looking for a Fest job. I have two operas already for next year, and that’s nice to have something in the cards. We have all the resources in the world given to us and we’re so grateful for it, and I think we work very hard in response to what we’re given. Then for it to not be there one day is scary. Exciting, but scary.”

The list of Adler alumni does not read exclusively like a list of superstars. Many have had major careers. Some did not. Many have had both important careers and success as teachers—such as Vaness, who now teaches at Indiana University, or Williams, who is now a professor at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin. Life is unpredictable, and the opera world is no exception. A two-year residency cannot guarantee a career. What an Adler Fellowship offers is an opportunity to experience working at the highest level, with the best assistance available to achieve and hopefully maintain that level. Certainly that was the intention of its founder.

“He inspired singers and left an indelible mark on our musicianship,” Williams says, who was a Fellow in 1988, the same year Adler died of a heart attack. “He had a gigantic presence, and his death left a large void. His spirit was always felt.”

This article was written while on a recent visit to Vienna. As a native San Franciscan, I looked out across the music-rich city that first nurtured Adler’s ambitions and could not help but think: Vienna’s loss was San Francisco’s gain.

Advice for Singers from San Francisco Opera Center Director Sheri Greenawald

On Working with a Teacher
“What they’re giving you should work on a consistent level. In other words, if you can only do what they think is right in the studio with them, then I would say maybe something is wrong because what you get should be something that you can take home and consistently work with.”

On Singing
“It shouldn’t hurt. I cannot tell you how many times I’m working with a singer and I get them to produce a healthy sound and they say, ‘It doesn’t hurt!’ And you realize that these kids have been in pain and they thought that’s the price they pay to produce the sound.”

On Differing Techniques among Singers
“Talk to each other! About technique, discuss it. I think one of the dangers when we’re in colleges, behind closed doors and the studios get their cults and these students would never talk to the students in that studio because it’s like revealing state secrets. Well, that’s hogwash, kids.”

On Vocal Health
“Go to a speech therapist. Find the name of a really great speech therapist and make sure your speaking voice isn’t undermining your singing. I’ve been doing a lot of work with the UCSF Voice and Swallowing department. If it were up to me, I would put a speech therapist in charge of every vocal department in the world, to make sure that what these teachers are teaching is vocally sound, because there is damage being done in schools across the States.”

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at