2010 What Makes the Merola Opera Program Great?

Master Class teacher Chuck Hudson.

Published 07/15/2010 BAY AREA REPORTER
by Jason Victor Serinus

See the photo gallery from the event here.

It’s no secret that San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera summer training program has prepared more world-class singers than a diva can shake her fist at. In SFO’s just-completed three-opera summer season, for example, lead singers Mark Delavan, Deborah Voigt, Patricia Racette, and John Relyea are all Merola graduates (aka Merolini).

It’s rare, however, that the public can go behind the scenes to experience an actual Merola training session. Such an opportunity arose at the end of June, when Merola donors, prospective patrons, and select press attended a Master Coaching Session at Herbst Theatre at which Chuck Hudson helped focus the stage presence and dramatic instincts of five gifted young artists.

Hudson’s background includes specialized training in gymnastics and the distinction of being one of three Americans to have received a diploma from the Marcel Marceau International School of Mimedrama in Paris. The only American appointed to teach at Marceau’s School, he performed with the great artist on his 1991 European Tour. Hudson went on to direct a host of major opera and theater productions, and co-create Seattle Opera’s Young Artist Program. Since 2004, he has spent two weeks every summer coaching Merolini in acting and movement.

The five participants in Hudson’s Master Class included soprano Nadine Sierra, who recently won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and tenor Eleazar Rodriguez, who is a Bay Area favorite. Each singer was invited to perform an aria of their choice, accompanied by a Merola apprentice coach.

After each singer went through an aria, Hudson went to work. Approaching each person differently, according to their energy and needs, he asked each to assume their character, then tell him who they were, where they were, and what their aria or scene was about.

In a short amount of time, Hudson so successfully focused each singer’s energy that every single one sang better and more convincingly the second time around. In the case of aptly named mezzo-soprano Renee Rapier, her razor-sharp focus during Erika’s aria from Barber’s Vanessa, “Must the Winter Come so Soon,” was so intense that both she and the audience were spellbound. For several other singers, high notes blossomed, and formerly generalized performances became charged with electricity.

“It was great to see them instantly translate the work we did together to the stage,” Hudson remarked after the class. “It’s like working with speaking actors. The Merolini become truthful and emotionally connected, and every thing they’re working on emotionally makes sense. They become characters in a dramatic situation that happens to be expressed through music. We need to bring meaning to these singers’ amazingly well-trained technique. Once they have a dramatic image to focus on, all that technical training clicks in by itself. They’re not focusing on their technique anymore.”

Hudson notes that this year’s group of 20 singers, four apprentice coaches and one apprentice stage director has a particular personality. For example, he finds the cast for this year’s production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, which runs Aug. 5-8 in Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater, mature, respectful of one another, and very comfortable discussing things among themselves. This is essential, because Hudson’s success in deepening their performances depends upon singers dropping their emotional armor and working together.

“Merola is one of the few intensive opera training programs that allows performances to happen,” he says. “This year, there is a scenes program to stretch the singers, as well as a full opera production. Each singer will eventually create their own style. There is no one way of doing it right.”

The Merola Opera Program kicks off on July 16 at 7:30 p.m. with the Schwabacher Summer Concert in Herbst Theater. The program is repeated outdoors in Yerba Buena Gardens on Sun., July 25 at 2 p.m. After the full production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, sung in Italian with English supertitles, the 53rd Merola Opera program concludes on Aug. 21 at 7:30 p.m. with the Grand Finale and Reception in the War Memorial Opera House. Opera-lovers who attend all three musical events will have a good chance of guessing which singers will end up being accepted into SFO’s two-year Adler Fellows program, and which have a good chance of making it to the Met, La Scala, and all the rest.

For tickets to Merola performances, call the San Francisco Opera Box Office at (415) 864-3330.