Esther Tonea is among the Merola Opera Program singers appearing in “If I Were You” in Herbst Theatre. (Courtesy Merola Opera Program)

Merola premieres a Faustian sci-fi opera

Training program stages Jake Heggie’s ‘If I Were You’

Each of the Bay Areas’s two world-renowned opera composers has a specialty. John Adams is known for his “CNN operas” on contemporary political themes, such as “Nixon in China”; Jake Heggie’s best-known works “Moby-Dick” and “Dead Man Walking” are based on literary classics by Herman Melville and Sister Helen Prejean.

Heggie’s “If I Were You,” which premieres this week in San Francisco in Merola Opera Program’s first commission, also has literary source, though it’s not famous. It’s loosely based on American writer Julien Green’s “Si j’étais vous,” published in French in 1947.

The opera, a Faustian fantasy about the devil enabling a young man to transfer his soul into other people’s bodies, a process called metempsychosis or transmigration, has a libretto by longtime Heggie collaborator Gene Scheer.

Heggie speaks passionately about the story’s dark poetry, beauty, humor, drama and surprises.

Growing up, he loved the magical realism of science fiction and horror movies, where natural and supernatural worlds collide, and he points to the success of movies such as “The Shape of Water” and the Netflix series “Stranger Things” in the tradition.

He says, “Operas, too, have explored stories where the devil toys with human nature. ‘If I Were You’ is a about a young man who makes a bargain with the devil to feel powerful and loved. He discovers a secret phrase he can sing to anyone and move his soul into another body. He could live forever this way, moving from person to person, leaving a trail of human wreckage. Brittomara, the devil, is a shape-shifter who becomes an EMT, a mechanic, a bartender, a hairdresser as she watches the drama unfold. The stakes are high, giving us big, emotional music and singing.”

“If I Were You” is the major presentation of the Merola training program’s 12-week session, in which singers spend most of their time in lessons, coaching, rehearsing, workshops and master classes. The program’s 62nd season concludes with a Grand Finale on Aug. 17 in the Opera House.

The production is a collaboration as well. Opera Parallèle’s Nicole Paiment conducts and Keturah Stickann is stage director.

Merola Executive Director Jean Kellogg calls the project “a dream come true after six years of imagining, planning, negotiating and fundraising.”

With roles double-cast, many of Merola’s 29 artists get a coveted opportunity to appear in lead roles. To avoid a sense of ranking, the casts are designated by neutral names “Pearl” (performances are Aug. 1 and Aug. 4) and “Emerald” (Aug. 3 and Aug. 6).

Esther Tonea, a soprano from Georgia who sings a lead part, is particularly thankful and thrilled to be in a world premiere. She says, “Every time I look at the score I see it in a different light, recognizing the motifs and character relationships Jake [Heggie] and Gene [Scheer] have incorporated to make this piece come to life.

“I have a feeling that the voice of this opera will change our own voices as artists and scholars. I’m excited to see all of the layers unfold as we move from coaching to music and staging rehearsals to working with the orchestra. Putting together an opera is thrilling; putting together a world premiere of this caliber is something I will always be grateful for.”

IF YOU GO

If I Were You

Presented by Merola Opera Program

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1 and Aug. 6; 2 p.m. Aug. 3-4

Tickets: $35 to $80

Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.merola.org

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