Merola’s new voices of 2010 

The 2010 Merola Opera Program is going into its homestretch, offering staged performances of Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center and the season-closing grand finale in the War Memorial Opera House in August.

Merola’s 20 young singers from around the world are studying, training and performing in The City for 10 weeks. Selected from some 650 applicants, the Merolini are on their way to careers which may reach heights such as those of alumni Patricia Racette, Thomas Hampson, Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Joyce DiDonato and Mark Delavan.

Along with the vocalists, the program is offered to five apprentice coaches and directors.

The program was created in 1954 as the San Francisco Opera Memorial Fund, and incorporated as a separate organization in 1955. Two years later, general director Kurt Herbert Adler named it for his predecessor, founding director Gaetano Merola.

The $2 million annual training program is funded separately from the opera, although with the parent organization’s full logistical support. The program pays more than $1 million a year for the opera’s facilities and services.

Merola pays tuition, housing, travel expenses and a stipend for participants. The number of active Merola supporters has risen from 677 to 718 members in the past year; they provide the lion’s share of the budget.

International participants come from different backgrounds, but with similar determination to succeed in this most demanding genre. Unlike the gathering of unknowns in the past, today’s artists already have some important accomplishments in their résumés.

Soprano Nadine Sierra from Florida is a Metropolitan National Council Audition finals winner; she sings the leading role of Adina in the double-cast “Elixir.”

The other Adina is Moscow-born Valentina Fleer, a Sara Tucker Award winner, and engaged to sing a major role with the Los Angeles Opera.

Another Russian in the group is apprentice coach Natalia Katyukova, trained both in Moscow and at Juilliard.

Baritone Sidney Outlaw and bass Kevin Thompson both won in Florida Grand Opera competitions. Soprano Hye Jung Lee, from Seoul, won last year’s Career Bridge Competition.

Mezzo Robin Flynn, from Orlando, Fla., has studied at Mannes, City University of New York and with Opera New Jersey. Iowan mezzo Renée Rapier lists “large and gaudy accessories” as her hobby.

Tenor Eleazar Rodríguez, born in Mexico and a recent San Francisco Conservatory graduate, is a popular performer locally, and in his second year with Merola.

Soprano Rebecca Davis is familiar to Bay Area audiences. She was principal artist-in-residence with Opera San José.

Three more tenors in the program are Alexander Lewis from Australia, Daniel Montenegro from Santa Ana and Kevin Ray from Cornwall, N.Y. Lewis and Montenegro will take turns as Nemorino, the leading tenor role of “Elixir.”

Baritone Benjamin Covey, from Canada, is a student of Tracy Dahl, herself a Merolina; also from Canada are apprentice coaches Jenna Douglas and Michael Spassov.

Soprano Abigail Santos Villalobos is the first participant from Puerto Rico and baritone Ao Li is from Shandong, China.


IF YOU GO

The Elixir of Love

Presented by Merola Opera Program

Where: Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Aug. 7; 2 p.m. Aug. 8

Tickets: $25 to $60

Merola Program Grand Finale

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 21

Tickets: $15 to $45

Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.merolaopera.com

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