Courtesy photoBig finish: This year’s Merola Opera Program artists close their season with a “Grand Finale” performance on Saturday

Up-and-coming stars of opera at S.F. Merola

Few traditions in the art of singing have proven so valuable and resilient as San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program.

The distinguished training program, which presents its 55th season’s “Grand Finale” performance on Saturday at the War Memorial Opera House, is as concentrated in intensity as it is in first-rate talent.

Some 30 participants selected from a pool of 800 for their star potential are molded by the finest in the profession, coached in singing, acting, stage presence and everything in between.

The Merola seal is one of excellence, and it has consistently received support from audiences, donors and an active and passionate board of directors.  

Executive Director Jean Kellogg says, “We have been very fortunate to have steady donations with a bottom line in the black for a number of years, and we still see new donations coming in.”

Bass-baritone Hadleigh Adams describes the donor group Amici di Merola: “They love Merola, the young singers.

It’s quite magical, the kind of support I’ve never experienced.”  

Soprano Jacqueline Piccolino says, “It’s just so exciting. I’m still in school and we don’t get that kind of coaching, all the wonderful knowledge that we do here. I really couldn’t ask for more.”

Performances by the Merolini, as they are called, are animated, communicative affairs. Ticket prices are not high, and beyond the arresting musical talent is warmth in the audience.

Saturday’s  finale, which includes works by Berlioz, Donizetti, Massenet, Mozart, Puccini, Rossini, Strauss and Verdi, could even eclipse acclaimed performances of Mozart’s “La Finta Giardiniera” earlier this month and Argento’s 1971 “Postcard from Morocco” in July.  

Those suspicious of amateurism would do well to consult a list of Merola alumni, which reads like a who’s-who of the operatic world: Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, Anna Netrebko, Patrick Summers and Deborah Voigt, to name a few.

Opinions may differ about art and its purposes, but the Merolini remain true to their craft. Mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule says, “One of the reasons I want to do this is it demands that I be my best self. The most inspirational artists are those who are able to channel something that is beyond them, something so otherworldly that I forget everything else going on around me.”

Bass-baritone Gordon Bintner says, “It’s when you’re that immersed in your work that you really grow. I think as a performer, there’s a certain level of vulnerability when you’re up there in front of 3,000 people. You can’t help but expand and discover yourself.”

As for the future of opera, apprentice stage director Jennifer Williams says, “This is a very resilient art form. It survived the Great Depression, and some of the greatest operas ever written premiered during some of the most dire straits in this country.”

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