Audiences in the Bay Area are about to be presented with a peek into the future of grand opera as San Francisco Opera's Merola Program unleashes its 2013 audition winners onto local stages. This remarkable, world-renowned program gets its name from Gaetano Merola, 1881-1953, who in 1923 founded the San Francisco Opera and became its first general director. Merola is presently headed by the charismatic Sheri Greenawald, who is herself an experienced, accomplished soprano.

This year's 23 winners, chosen after an extensive worldwide search combined with numerous rigorous auditions, include 23 singers, five apprentice coaches and one apprentice stage director. While the majority hail from the United States and Canada, Iran, Latvia, New Zealand and Ireland have each contributed a winner as well.

Soprano Jacqueline Piccolino, a native of Chicago and graduate of the University of Illinois, is one of a select few who is participating in a second summer of Merola training, but has already been named an Adler Fellow. As such, she is being given intensive individual training and can expect to be given roles of increasing importance in San Francisco Opera's main-stage season. She sang the role of Stella in S.F. Opera's recent production of Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" and has already been cast as the Countess in this summer's "The Marriage of Figaro" production. Anna Netrebko, the great Russian soprano and 1996 Merola Program graduate, did much the same thing -- singing first in the main season before going on to Merola.

The program pays all tuition, housing and travel expenses and grants a living stipend to each of the winners during the 11-week period in San Francisco. While here, the singers experience intense training in movement, acting, languages and diction as well as coaching on role preparation and proper breathing techniques, while the apprentice coaches receive piano training and conducting instruction.

Any doubters of the efficacy of the program need only consider a few of the now-famed names among graduates: Netrebko, Thomas Hampson, Carol Vaness, Deborah Voigt, Mark Delavan, Dolora Zajick, Patricia Racette, Brian Asawa, Kurt Streit, Jess Thomas, John Relyea, Rolando Villazon, Leah Crocetto, Joshua Bloom, Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Quinn Kelsey, Sylvia McNair, Melody Moore and Patrick Summers.

A number of well-established artists and coaches are also attracted to the Merola Program and come to San Francisco to conduct master classes. Among this year's luminaries will be Neil Shicoff, Jane Eaglen, Martin Katz, Warren Jones and Patrick Carfizzi. These will be held in the historic Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St., in San Francisco. These classes are open only to Merola members, so those who wish to attend can join the Merola support organization as a member for as little as $10.

Of course all this training and class work is going to result in some stunning performances that are open to the public. This year's presentations will include two fully staged operas with full orchestra. The first will be Benjamin Britten's adult-themed "The Rape of Lucretia" at 7:30 p.m. July 11 and 2 p.m. July 13. Mark Morash will conduct, and Peter Kazaras will be stage director.

The second will be Mozart's merry "The Marriage of Figaro," at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1 and 2 p.m. Aug. 3. Xian Zhang will conduct, and Robin Guarino will be stage director. Both operas will be performed at the Everett Middle School Auditorium, 450 Church St., in San Francisco. Tickets for each range from $15 to $60, available at 415-864-3330 or www.merolaopera.com/calendar.

There will be two performances of the delightful Schwabacher Summer Concerts this year -- the first at 7:30 p.m. July 18, also in the Everett auditorium. Tickets are $15, $25 and $40.

The second, at 2 p.m. July 20, will be out of doors and free of charge in the Yerba Buena Gardens, 760 Howard St., in San Francisco. Both are bound to be highly entertaining, with duos and ensembles of the Merolini participating in artfully staged scenes from favorite operas: "Don Giovanni," "Don Carlo," "L'Italiana in Algeri," "Lucia di Lammermoor," "L'Amico Fritz," and "Otello." The splendid Merola Grand Finale will take over the War Memorial Opera House stage at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 17. This is the culmination of the 2013 Merola summer season and will properly showcase the abilities of the students following their Merola training. Tickets for the performance are $15, $25, $35 and $45.

A festive Grand Finale reception that will include the evening's stars, will be held in the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House's lower-level cafe following the performance. Tickets for this event are $50 each, at 415-864-3330 or www.merola.org.

Contact Cheryl North at cherylnorth@hotmail.com.