Merola Presents “La Cererentola”

by Jean Schiffman

Merola Opera Program—the esteemed opera summer training program—celebrates its 60th year with two performances of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola.”

“I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,” says bass-baritone Andrew Hiers, of the phone call he received on the Sunday before last Thanksgiving. It was from San Francisco’s 60-year-old Merola Opera Program, the summer-long training session, with public performances, for rising professional opera artists. Hiers was told he’d been accepted and would play Don Magnifico, the wicked stepfather, in this summer’s full-length opera, Rossini’s version of the Cinderella story, “La Cenerentola.”

“We deal with a good amount of rejection,” explains Hiers, 29, who recently graduated from SUNY Binghamton’s Masters program and placed first in the 2016 National Association of Teachers competition in Chicago. To get accepted to this prestigious program—one of about 15 he’d auditioned for last fall all over the country—was, he knew, a serious career-booster. He’d sung “Toreador” from “Carmen” at his callback.

For classical singers, the late 20s is the ideal time for this kind of training, says Merola artistic director Sheri Greenawald. “This is when everything starts to coalesce for a singer,” she explains. This year she and San Francisco Opera director of musical studies Mark Morash traveled around the country to audition talent, selecting 23, plus five apprentice coaches and one apprentice director, from 24 different states and five different countries, out of the 600 or so that initially applied. For the summer shows, she says, “We’re looking for unusual voices, dramatic voices.”

Merola is named after San Francisco Opera founder Gaetano Merola, who died in 1953 while conducting a young singer in the aria “Un bel di” from “Madama Butterfly” in Stern Grove. Several years later, the training program, an independent nonprofit that is loosely connected to the San Francisco Opera, was established. Incoming students are set up in local housing, largely thanks to welcoming local hosts, and are also eligible for a $12,000 grant for up to six years after they leave to aid them in the next stage of their careers. (They can also reapply to the program one time; this summer five are returnees.) Singers such as Deborah Voigt and Joyce DiDonato, among other luminaries, are Merolini. As San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic Joshua Kosman wrote recently, “It is no exaggeration to say that the foundations laid during summer after summer of education [at Merola] . . . have had a lasting impact on the American operatic landscape.”

Three weeks after Hiers arrived in San Francisco—he’s originally from Florida but is mostly nomadic these days—he was deeply immersed in movement classes, language brush-up (Italian, German, French), waltzing (“lots of fun!”), “dramatic intention” training and voice work, both in master classes and kin one-on-one training, with an array of guest teachers (among them this summer: Deborah Birnbaum, Richard Battle, Jane Eaglen, John Parr). Classes also include musical history of different eras in opera (baroque, romantic and so on, with a dance component and study of period costumes), acting techniques, diction, career management, stage movement and more. There’s even a speech therapist to instruct in vowel formation and singer formants (an esoteric acoustical term related to frequencies of sound).

Hiers was also preparing to start music rehearsals for “La Cenerentola,” to be followed by staging rehearsals. “La Cenerentola” is “a wonderful Rossini romp,” says Greenawald; Merola stages the opera about every 10 years. This year Morash conducts and Chuck Hudson directs. Twenty years ago, Joyce DiDonato played the heroine, Angelina; this year it’s mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey, a Juilliard graduate based in New York, who was who was one of the grand finale winners of the 2017 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Merola was the only program she applied for this summer; she loves Rossini and wanted the role, so she auditioned with an aria from the opera. “All girls love Cinderella,” she says, and she particularly likes this version of the character, who has grace and elegance; she’s a heroine you can admire. “The challenge,” adds Hankey, “is to not play her as a stereotype. We all have Cinderella inside us.” And the entire cast’s challenge is to master the speedy patter, which is prominent in Rossini.

With a libretto by Jacopo Ferretti, the opera was first performed in Rome in 1817, when Italian composer Gioachino Rossini was 25. It veers from the original French fairytale, “Cendrillon,” by Charles Perrault, not only by turning the evil stepmother into a stepfather but also by giving the prince (tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro) a valet, Dandini (bass-baritone Christian Pursell) and adding a comedic identity switcheroo for the two men; and replacing the glass slipper with a bracelet and the fairy godmother with a court philosopher who’s the prince’s tutor (bass-baritone Szymon Wach, from Poland). Hiers sees his own role, the stepfather, as a man less evil than egotistical; it is, he explains, a traditional “buffo”—a buffoon. The challenge for him is to not “act” the comedy, not to play funny, but rather to let Rossini’s comedic character come out on its own. That, and mastering the opera’s recitative—speaking in Italian in a singing voice.

“La Cenerentola” precedes the summer grand finale, 19 selections in which every student appears, either in a solo, duet or trio. 

“The beauty of Merola,” says Greenawald, “is the intense training, the individual attention. In Merola, your job is to be the star of the show, and that’s what we try to do. Everyone gets a featured moment. In the Grand Finale, we let you shine on the stage of the San Francisco Opera with a full orchestra in the pit.”

La Cenerentola

August 3 & 5

San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Merola Grand Finale

August 19

War Memorial Opera House