Yesterday morning the Merola Opera Program announced its first-ever commission of a new operatic work, which will be given its world premiere performance by Merola Opera Program artists in San Francisco in the summer of 2019. This year will mark the 60th anniversary season of the program; and, over the course of those 60 years, the training program, named in honor of the founder of the San Francisco Opera (SFO), Gaetano Merola, has cultivated an international reputation within the global community of those committed to making and performing operas. Every summer Merola participants are screened by SFO; and the best of them “graduate” to enter SFO’s Adler Fellowship Program, a major opportunity to perform in SFO productions. While most of the participants are vocalists, the program also admits several musicians to learn about coaching and accompaniment; and training in stage direction is also part of the curriculum.
All aspects of the program will come into play during the summer of 2019 to prepare the first production of the first opera to be commissioned by the Merola Opera Program. The commission has been granted to composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer. The title of the opera that they will create will be If I Were You, the English translation of the title of the 1947 novel by Julien Green, Si j’étais vous…. Green was born to American parents in Paris in 1900, and all of his writing was in French. That includes nineteen volumes of a diary covering the period from 1919 to 1998, a four-volume autobiography, a prodigious number of novels (including a trilogy entitled Dixie that reflected Green’s sympathy for the Confederacy during the Civil War), and at least one screenplay. That screenplay will probably interest opera lovers, since it was for the French film La dame de pique (the queen of spades), an adaptation by director Léonard Keigel of the short story by Alexander Pushkin that inspired Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opera of the same name. (Keigel decided not to use Tchaikovsky’s music in his film, preferring works by Franz Schubert instead.)
For its time Si j’étais vous… was a pioneering effort to deal with the mind-body problem that had become a major area of study by twentieth-century philosophers, as well as Carl Jung’s approach to the relationship between behavior and personality through his theory of archetypes. In Green’s novel the protagonist, Fabian Hart, makes a deal with the devil through which he is granted the power to transfer his soul into the physical bodies of others. This poses an intriguing problem in creating an opera. The bodies “invaded” by Hart’s soul can be distinguished by different vocal ranges; but that means that each singer will have to distinguish when that character is “inhabited” by Hart’s soul and when it is not. The result may well entail some fascinating new approaches to how character traits may be captured in music, regardless of the words that are being sung.
The Merola Opera Program also used this announcement to outline the plans for the coming summer season. Participants will include seven sopranos, four mezzos, four tenors, two baritones, and six bass-baritones, as well as five pianists serving as apprentice coaches and one apprentice stage director. In addition, all public events have been announced. Further details will be forthcoming for all of them. However, for save-the-date purposes, the basic plan for the summer events in San Francisco will be as follows:
- Sunday, June 11, 8 p.m.: The 60th Anniversary Gala and Concert will take place with performances given in Herbst Theatre.
- Thursday, July 6, 7:30 p.m.: The annual Schwabacher Summer Concert of staged scenes will take place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM).
- Thursday, July 20, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, July 22, 2 p.m.: The first full-length program, performed at SFCM, will be a triple bill of one-act operas: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “La serva padrona” (the servant mistress), Gustav Holst’s “Sāvitri,” and William Walton’s “The Bear.”
- Thursday, August 3, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday August 5, 2 p.m.: The second full-length program, also performed at SFCM, will be Gioachino Rossini’s two-act opera La Cenerentola (Cinderella).
- Saturday, August 19, 7:30 p.m.: The season will conclude with the annual Merola Grand Finale at the War Memorial Opera House, followed by a reception.