THE MUSIC MAN
With Seán Martinfield
A Grand Finale - The Merola Opera Program
August 22, 2006
The annual presentation of the Merola Opera Program's "Grand
Finale" at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House was as
much a Commencement Exercise as it was an artistic success. More
importantly, the event also proved to be a renewal of faith and
a loving tribute to recently deceased co-founder and Chairman,
James H. Schwabacher.
As an advanced training course, the fully funded Merola Opera
Program is of vital importance toward the development of world
class excellence in young vocal artists pursuing professional
operatic careers. Established in 1957 and named for the San Francisco
Opera's first general director, Gaetano Merola, the 23 singers
selected for this year's intensive eleven-week program delivered
a thoroughly diverse and entertaining concert under the baton
of Richard Buckley, familiar to audiences in Pittsburgh, Austin,
Montreal and now Principal Conductor to the newly formed Opera
Cleveland. No doubt, some of these artists and Mr. Buckley will
cross paths again. The networking starts here.
Appearing on this bill of 20 well-chosen selections are three
singers who originate from Winnipeg, Sydney, and Seoul; twenty
are from the USA. Of them, three are from California - soprano
Ani Maldjian (Los Angeles); soprano Jamie Chamberlin (Santa Barbara);
and tenor Brian Thorsett (Half Moon Bay). Only Mr. Thorsett credits
the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in his bio notes. The
Merola Opera Program does not play Local Favorites nor does it
receive any direct financial support from the San Francisco Opera.
Through a series of auditions it invites the cream of the crop
and then covers their travel, housing and coaching expenses as
well as a weekly subsistence allowance. While the presentation
aspects of the "Grand Finale" do have something in the
air similar to the last rounds of "American Idol", each
of these finely educated singers will become listed and linked
to a tight international "Who's Who" of available young
Operatic Talent. Among the familiar talent that has passed through
these vocal tests of fire are the Leading Ladies of the recent
smash-hit Summer Opera Season: Patricia Racette (MADAMA BUTTERFLY),
Dolora Zajick (THE MAID OF ORLÉANS), and the three sopranos
appearing as "The Countess" (LE NOZZE DI FIGARO) - Ruth
Ann Swenson, Twyla Robinson and Melody Moore. It's that thing
about coming to San Francisco and finally getting your act together.
For these career singers, it started with the Merola Opera Program.
In some ways "The Grand Finale" is similar to a great
"Coming Out Cotillion". As evidenced in their arias
and scenes, each of the singers steps into the spotlight to display
their various physical attributes, the wealth of their talent,
and their desirability to the various houses where a vacancy needs
to be filled or a position needs to be created.
Following the overture, the very handsome Black baritone, Daniel
Billings, began the program with "Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo"
- an aria intended for the character "Guglielmo" from
Mozart's COSI FAN TUTTE (translates to, "They are all like
this") which actually landed on the cutting room floor in
1790. In English, figuratively speaking, the opening line of the
aria could be, "Feast your eyes on this!" For Mozart
and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, the song just added too many
notes. Too bad Mr. Billings wasn't around then. Casting Directors,
Another feast for the eyes and ears was the truly sensuous "Fly
Duet" of baritone David Lara (as "Jupiter") and
soprano Jamie Chamberlin (as "Eurydice") from Offenbach's
ORPHEUS IN THE UNDERWORLD. Having seen Mr. Lara earlier as Rossini's
lusty "Figaro" in soft-shoe-tandem with tenor Joshua
Kohl as the potent "Almaviva" - one need not look much
beyond the obvious. No matter who he is teamed up with, David
Lara is a hot Leading Man with a 2+ octaves ready to go.
Bass-baritone Marc Webster, as "Sarastro" (DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE),
displayed clear and resonant command over his Low Fs in the aria,
"In diesen heil'gen Hallen" ("In these hallowed
halls"). The remainder of the sentence is "
knows not revenge." As with the three soprano alumni mentioned
above covering the role of "The Countess" [see review,
MARRIAGE OF FIGARO - Wife #3), Mr. Webster might one day find
his competitive spirit challenged by two other gifted bass-baritones
featured this fine night, Michael Anthony McGee and Kyle Albertson.
All three could be considered for such bass-baritone roles as
"Des Grieux" in MANON, "Collin" in LA BOHÈME,
or as "Banquo" in Verdi's MACBETH. Mr. McGee presented
himself as a worthy "Prince Igor". Mr. Albertson was
brimming over with erotic charm in "Warm as the autumn light"
(THE BALLAD OF BABY DOE) - enough, in fact, to inspire every soprano
in town to warm up her High Ds, loosen her stays and head for
The most arresting ensemble of the evening proved to be the "Ice
Cream Sextet" from Kurt Weill's STREET SCENE. Before her
passing in 1981, the tempestuous Lotte Lenya (wife of Kurt Weill)
wanted it made known that her husband's musicals should be performed
only by the best in the Classical field. It would seem her death-wishes
were more clear and coherent than some might think. [See commentary
on A.C.T.'s "Happy End", June 15, 2006.] Even with this
young ensemble, under the direction of apprentice stage director
Tara Faircloth, Mrs. Weill can rest in peace knowing that her
husband's work is blooming at the War Memorial Opera House.
Some will be invited into the next and more advanced program
and become an Adler Fellow (named for former manager of the SF
Opera, Kurt Herbert Adler). Some of the singers showed seeds of
greatness, others were simply fabulous, while others have (at
this stage in their development) every reason to think they can
sustain respectable careers in the operatic world - including
all manner of Classical recordings and various symphonic or concert-type
solo experiences - for as long as they choose to maintain their
vocal chops, physical health and artistic integrity.
In a class by herself is soprano Heidi Melton. Her rendition
of "Surta è la notte
Ernani involami" from
Verdi's ERNANI stopped the show. The wave of shouting and applause
that flooded towards her was more than deserved. As the only soprano
and the only performer to be pushed out for a second bow, the
commanding Ms. Melton was incredibly grateful, radiant and even
somewhat embarrassed to be singled out as the hit of the evening.
The last ensemble of the evening, the Encore, was dedicated to
James H. Schwabacher. An enlarged portrait of Mr. Schwabacher
descended from the rafters, a familiar photo to many of us who
knew him and benefited from his instruction. From Leonard Bernstein's
CANDIDE, "Make Our Garden Grow", all twenty-three singers,
including members of the Adler Fellows, joined in a most fitting
and heartfelt tribute.
Help support Mr. Schwabacher's vision and the future of Opera
by joining Merola.
For more information contact: www.merola.org
Phone: (415) 565-5427
Opening Night of the 2006-07 season San Francisco Opera happens
Friday, September 8. For further information:
Opera Box Office:
301 Van Ness Avenue
Phone: (415) 864-3330
Hours: Monday - Friday, 10 am - 6 pm (also Saturday, 10 am - 6
pm during performance season)
Ordering Tickets Online:
Tickets may be ordered online up to 48 hours prior to each performance.
To order tickets online go to sfopera.com/buy.