2010 The Wall Street Journal: Aug 13

BOOT CAMP FOR BELTERS: The Wall Street Journal: Friday August 13, 2010

“…everyone I’ve talked to or exchanged messages with so far has mentioned the magical power of your coaching.” –David Littlejohn to Chuck Hudson during the interview for this article.

A moment during a Chuck Hudson master class:

San Francisco

In 1957, the San Francisco Opera’s general director, Kurt Herbert Adler, wanted to keep the flow of top-quality performers moving into his and other opera companies, so he established a rigorous training program for young singers. This demanding regimen became known as the Merola Opera Program, named for Adler’s predecessor Gaetano Merola, who had founded the company in 1923.

After 53 years, 963 young singers (as well as 110 apprentice coaches and 15 apprentice stage directors—some are invited back for a second term) have made their way through this now 11-week summer boot camp in opera performance, which outranks any comparable program in the country not only in the range, intensity and quality of its training, but in the stature of its alumni.
Former “Merolini” (as they are called) include Brian Asawa, ’91; Laura Claycomb, ’89-’90; Mark Delavan, ’85; Joyce DiDonato, ’97; Susan Graham, ’87; Nancy Gustafson, ’82; Thomas Hampson, ’80; Gary Lakes, ’81; Sylvia McNair, ’82; Leona Mitchell, ’71; Anna Netrebko, ’96; Patricia Racette, ’88; John Relyea, ’95; Kurt Streit, ’86; Ruth Ann Swenson, ’81-’82; the late Jess Thomas, ’57; Carol Vaness, ’76; Deborah Voigt, ’85; and Dolora Zajick, ’83. Seven of these singers will be performing lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera next season. San Francisco Opera audiences will hear Ms. Zajick’s well-known Amneris and Mr. Delavan’s compelling new Wotan, as well as at least 20 other Merola Program graduates during the 2010-11 season. Many are young singers taking on minor parts (while covering the stars), but a few others are recent graduates who have already moved on to substantial roles.
Four selected Merola graduates each year may extend their stay in San Francisco for two years with a paid residency—now called an Adler Fellowship—which includes further training, as well as onstage roles in the big house. (All Merolini and Adler Fellows get to stay at a sponsor’s home, with a stipend for travel and living expenses.)

How do you turn promising young opera singers into potential paid professionals in just 11 weeks? First, you choose them very, very carefully. Merola administrators receive 600 to 800 applications every year, which they winnow down to about 400 on the basis of the applicants’ previous training and experience and the recommendations they supply. Then Sheri Greenawald—a former soprano of distinction, now head of San Francisco Opera’s training programs—and her colleagues listen to all of them, in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or San Francisco, and come up with the 19 to 23 they think may make it, as well as four apprentice coaches and one apprentice director.

Then, as Ms. Graham put it, “they throw you into the deep end of the pool, even if you don’t know how to swim.” I interviewed 10 participants in the program, from the class of 1980 to the class of 2010. All agreed on the frantic intensity of the pace, the incredible amount of information you were expected to absorb—while preparing for at least three public performances—in less than three months. “We were all little sponges, ready to cram in as much as possible,” said Ms. Voigt, between rehearsals in Japan. “The faculty throw such a crazy amount of information at you,” says Eleazar Rodriguez, ’09-’10. “Only now, a year later, am I beginning to understand it.” Elza van den Heever, ’03-’04—who has an astonishing career already lined up—compared the program to a young doctor’s high-pressure residency in a hospital.

Training nowadays usually begins with Chuck Hudson’s acting classes, in which the voice becomes one with the face and the limbs. (“It was ‘Acting for Dummies,'” says David Lomelí, ’08. “He changed everything.”) There are also special classes in breathing, diction, exercise, stage movement and improvisation. Costumers teach women how to deal with hoop skirts and men with capes, singing all the while; makeup specialists demonstrate one aspect of the art of self-transformation. There are daily classes in Italian—”not so much mastering the language,” says Ms. Zajick, “as making Italian an organic part of your singing.” Mr. Delavan cites “the amazing and gifted Nora Norden, well into her 90s,” to whom he returned for German coaching on his first Wotans in 2008 and 2010.

At the same time, each student has already been assigned roles in one of that season’s operas, for which separate staging and musical rehearsals can begin almost at once, and go on for hours. Time must be found every day, also, for one-on-one coaching sessions with musicians and voice teachers. Each singer gets master classes in front of others with visiting stars. Mr. Hampson remembers being publicly coached by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Mr. Delavan by Régine Crespin, Ms. van den Heever by Ms. Zajick, Mr. Rodriguez by Jane Eaglen. Laquita Michell, ’02, was “in awe of Reri Grist. She was so helpful, so available.”
In these six-day weeks there were no “typical” days, everyone told me. But one could last eight or more hours, many of them spent singing. How much did all that work matter, in the long run?

“The speed and momentum mattered,” says Ms. Voigt. “People paid attention to you; Merola mapped out our careers for us.”
“There’s no question that Merola is rare, even unique,” says Mr. Hampson. “Its history and gravitas are major.”
“Merola was so prestigious, just getting in was already a leg up,” says Ms. Graham. “The training, the opportunities all led to the most phenomenal boost of confidence—’I’m not just another kid!'”

“Merola,” says Ms. Zajick—who has returned there to teach, and begun a training program for even younger opera singers—”was one long audition.” Mr. Lomelí, an engineering grad from Mexico just two years out of the program, will be singing six Italian and two French roles with nine different companies in four countries next season. Quinn Kelsey ’02 phoned me from Austria, where he was singing Amonasro (from “Aida”) at the Bregenz Festival, one of two roles he will perform in San Francisco next season. Mr. Kelsey took his memorable Marcello (from “La Bohème”), which he developed at Merola and SFO, on to Chicago, New York and London.
This year’s Merolini climaxed their three months of hard labor with a fully staged, double-cast production of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore,” a romantic-comic bonbon I saw last week. Donizetti’s rustic Italian opera of 1832 was transported and updated to 1942 San Francisco—with half taking place at a little theater run by Adina (which seems to be rehearsing “L’Elisir d’Amore”) where poor lovelorn Nemorino works as a props boy; and half at Fort Mason, the U.S. Army’s port of embarcation for the war in the Pacific, where the 400-seat Cowell Theater, in which we were sitting, happens to be located.

This meant, of course, that much of the libretto didn’t make sense, but the costumes (Andrews Sisters hairdos, shorts, slacks and dresses, suspenders, fedoras and G.I. uniforms) were great, as were the jitterbugging and stage movement in general. The chorus was excellent. I tend to avoid reviewing individual nonprofessional performers unless they’re surprisingly good, but I thought that Daniel Montenegro, a good-looking, boyish Nemorino who can act, displayed a handsome, ringing, wide-ranging tenor of genuine promise; and that Nadine Sierra, as the disdainful object of his affections, had her high notes and finely chopped coloratura down pat. It remains to be seen what both can do with a larger and better orchestra in a bigger house, which they will get a chance to do on Aug. 21 when they sing a duet from Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” at the program’s Grand Finale in the War Memorial Opera House with San Francisco Opera Orchestra members.

Mr. Littlejohn writes about West Coast events for the Journal.