Things are looking fairly promising for this year's version of that big end-of-the-season dress-up party known as the Merola Grand Finale. That's the celebratory culmination of the 11 weeks of intensive vocal and dramatic training the young participants in the San Francisco Opera Center's apprenticeship program have been undergoing over the summer.
This year, there are 29 of them, 23 aspiring singers, five apprentice coaches and a young stage director, every one of whom has applied serious elbow grease to preparations for the grand concert they'll put on Saturday night on the War Memorial Opera House stage.
The big task of marshalling the vocal talent on and off the stage in some appealing and unobstructed fashion has fallen on that one apprentice stage director, George Cederquist of Ann Arbor, Mich. A young fellow who holds dual U.S. and U.K. citizenship, Cederquist has already started packing his curriculum vitae with awards, having been one of only 10 Americans -- and the first stage director -- to snag a 2011-12 German Chancellor Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. His future is already unrolling before him -- next season, he steps into his role as the resident artist stage director for the Pittsburgh Opera.
In the meantime, we heartily applaud his spirited approach to his most immediate assignment -- showcasing the progress his talented fellow Merolini have made this summer. "My goal is to create a staged concert that is celebratory, beautiful and fluid," his prepared statement reads. "This is not the time for highly conceptual work. My aim is to help my singer-colleagues sound great, act great and look great, and I intend to do just that."
The Merolini will have ample support on the San Francisco Opera Orchestra podium, which will be manned Saturday night by John DeMain, music director of the Madison Symphony and artistic director of the Madison Opera in Wisconsin. DeMain is a longtime associate of S.F. Opera general director David Gockley, having served as his music director for 18 of the years Gockley was at the helm of the Houston Grand Opera. Together there they launched the historic revival of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," which DeMain subsequently recorded for RCA, winning a Grammy, a Tony and France's Grand Prix du Disque in the process.
The Grand Finale program itself represents a sweeping history of opera, with works that date from the 17th to the 20th centuries. Coming onstage Saturday night as singles, pairs and one trio, the Merola singers will perform from Wagner's "Lohengrin," Britten's "Billy Budd," Massenet's "Manon," Barber's "Vanessa," Monteverdi's "Il ritorno d' Ulisse," Rossini's "La Cenerentola," Handel's "Ariodante," Verdi's "Luisa Miller," Gounod's "Sapho," Weber's "Die Freischutz," Mozart's "Ascanio in Alba," Offenbach's "La belle Helene," Korngold's "Die tote Stadt" and Purcell's "Dido and Aneas." For a glorious conclusion, all gather en masse to perform Leonard Bernstein's gorgeous "Make our garden grow" from "Candide."
For the record, the singers who are in the 56th annual season of the Merola program include five sopranos: Linda Barnett of Greeneville, Tenn.; Aviva Fortunata of Calgary, Alberta; Alisa Jordheim of Appleton, Wis.; Jacqueline Piccolino of Palatine, Ill. and Maria Valdes of Atlanta.
The mezzo-sopranos are also five in number: Kate Allen of Dublin, Ireland; Rihab Chaieb of Montreal, Quebec; Daryl Freedman of Philadelphia; Katie Hannigan of Newburgh, N.Y.; and Zanda Svede of Valmeria, Latvia.
The tenors are Casey Finnigan of Austin, Texas; Matthew Newlin of Georgetown, Ill.; Pene Pati of Auckland, New Zealand; Issachah Savage of Philadelphia and Robert Watson of Kansas City, Mo.
The baritones are Chris Carr of Quasqueton, Iowa; Alex Descocio of Wichita, Kan.; Joseph Lattanzi of Mableton, Ga.; and Efrain Solis of Santa Ana.
Bass-baritone John Arnold hails from Cumming, Ga.; his fellow low-registered singers are Thomas Richards of Burnsville, Minn.; Rhys Talbot of Cedar Falls, Iowa; and David Weigel of Asheville, N.C.
The apprentice coaches are Timothy Cheung of Toronto; Noah Lindquist of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Sahar Nouri of Tehran, Iran; Michael Shannon of London, Ontario; and Jeremy Weissman of Culver City.
We give you their names because you may see some of them up in lights in the future; their predecessor Merolini include such high-profile singers as Thomas Hampson, Deborah Voigt, Dolora Zajick, Ana Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, among many others.
Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. concert, $25-$45, are available at 415-864-3330 and www.sfopera.com. An additional $50 will get you into a post-concert reception in the Opera House Cafe that will enable you to mingle with the performers.
Contact Sue Gilmore at firstname.lastname@example.org.