SF Opera's Merola training program to perform first-ever commissioned opera

SF Opera's Merola training program to perform first-ever commissioned opera
Cara Collins (left) and Edith Grossman (right) in "If I Were You" at Herbst Theatre. | Photo: Kristen Loken
By Cedric Westphal - Published on August 01, 2019.

This week, the SF Opera-associated Merola Program will present its first-ever commission of a new opera, "If I Were You," by San Francisco composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer.

Producing a new work is a major risk for the Merola Program, a summer boot camp for aspiring artists. But executive director Jean Kellogg said she believes it’s a worthwhile investment in the program’s future.

Named after the first music director of the SF Opera, Merola has advanced the careers of some of the biggest stars in the medium, including Thomas Hampson and Anna Netrebko. 

"We provide the finest intensive training, we give them all the professional tools that they don't get in college, to prepare for a career in opera," Kellogg said. "Most of them have a graduate degree, so basically it's a finishing school."

One key part of the training is fully staged productions of one or two operas each year, with a small but full orchestra. However, the existing opera repertoire is rather small for pieces with 30 instruments, little or no chorus and half a dozen meaty roles to give multiple singers something to cut their teeth into.

To Kellogg, it was an obvious choice to "commission our own and do it now, so we can revisit it in the future."

Michael Day (left) and Rafael Porto (right) are exchanging bodies. | Photo: Kristen Loken

"When young artists sing 'Marriage of Figaro' or 'Barber of Seville,' they have an enormous number of opera singers in the past that they have to live up to," she said. But with a premiere, no one has sung these roles before.

"It gives them an opportunity to put their own mark on it and advance their own musicianship by learning something that has no precedent. And they get to create a new role for themselves — for history, forever. It's a fantastic training tool." 

When Kellogg and Merola decided to create a new opera, they went to Jake Heggie, a Noe Valley resident who has written some of the most influential operas of the 21st century, including "Dead Man Walking," "Moby Dick" and "It's a Wonderful Life," presented this past season by the SF Opera.

Heggie was on board immediately: "He said, 'I have the perfect opera.' Fifteen years ago, he had discovered this novel and was dying to do it. He didn't have the right format yet to put it on paper. He was totally inspired from the beginning, and it shows," Kellogg said.

"If I Were You" is based upon the eponymous novel from Julien Green. Its story should be familiar to opera lovers, from "Faust" to "The Rake's Progress": the main character sells his soul to the devil to obtain a supernatural power. Here, protagonist Fabian receives a magic formula that lets him switch bodies and lives with any unsuspecting person.

"It couldn't have been more ideal for Merola," enthuses Kellogg. "The whole idea of the lead changing body, going from one body to the next, it's just fantastic. Each one of them is like a starring role."

However, it's not a literal adaptation: "Jake and Gene put a love interest in that's not in the book," Kellogg explained. "There's humor, drama, pathos — a little bit of everything that's not in the book."

And unlike in the book, this opera's devil is a woman.

The set of "If I Were You." | Photo: Frank Wing

To get financial support, Kellogg looked for a co-commissioner. However, there was not a lot of interest for a "student" opera, so Merola raised the extra budget from donors.

"Oh my goodness, Jake is so beloved in this town, we were shocked at the number of people, people who've never given to us, giving huge amounts of money," Kellogg said. "They see it as a great investment for Merola and the future of opera, and they adore Jake Heggie."

While the premiere will be unveiled this weekend, the opera has been workshopped and fine-tuned over the last year, including at Colorado University at Boulder, where Heggie and Scheer attended a program for composers and librettists last year.

"They pay for everything to workshop new work for three weeks," Kellogg said. "Jake and Gene made changes to the piece in that time."

The piece was also workshopped in San Francisco in January, "to show our major donors what they had invested in," Kellogg explained. "It turned out to be an opportunity to rework some of it as well. The more you workshop, the better results you'll have in the theater." 

The premiere will be led by another local opera eminence, conductor Nicole Paiement.

"We've been dying to get her to conduct a show," Kellogg said. "We have a female director [Keturah Stickann] and female conductor for this production. It's kind of a new thing for an opera company, and it should not be." 

Since the commission allowed Merola to raise the funds, work with a leading composer, hire an outstanding conductor and director, and create a work of art uniquely suited to their students' needs, why not do this every year?

"We have a staff of seven," Kellogg noted. "It has been incredibly hard work, it's been very rewarding, but it's overwhelming for an opera company. We're so small, it will be five years before we do it again." 

"If I Were You" will be performed at the Herbst Theater (401 Van Ness Ave.) tonight, August 1, through next Tuesday, August 6. Tickets are $35 - $80.