Not Just For Fairytales: Happy Endings in Opera

By Taryn Graham

Merola's 1997 production of La Cenerentola, starring Joyce DiDonato and Harold Brock. Photo by Larry Merkle.

Merola’s 1997 production of La Cenerentola, starring Joyce DiDonato and Harold Brock. Photo by Larry Merkle.

I’m not the first to wonder – a Google search of “operas and happy endings” returns almost 1.6 million results. Most folks, when asked, can think of one or two that end well: Falstaff, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Magic Flute often top their lists. But for every Prince that finds his Cendrillon (or Cenerentola), there are three or four characters who are not so lucky: a Senta, who chooses death and loyalty to her ghostly Dutchman, or self-destructive rogues like Don Giovanni. Even operas that end in marriage, like Turandot, often do so after tallying a body count comparable to modern crime procedurals. So, if opera is largely synonymous with tragedy, where do its joyful endings arise from?

From a historical perspective, opera emerged as a spectacle, performed in lavish settings to nobility. Its combination of speeches, costumes, instrumental music, and song was revolutionary, and revived mythological themes for an audience that remained part of the entertainment until it became custom to darken the theater as the show started. By reinterpreting mythology, opera embraces sweeping, oftentragic themes, and has done so since the form’s origins. Claudio Monteverdi adapted the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in L’Orfeo, considered one of the first true operas, but interestingly, the opera as performed gives Orpheus a happier ending: he is escorted to Olympus by Apollo after losing his wife, Eurydice, in a test of faith. It isn’t a storybook-perfect ending, but it’s a better fate than being torn limb from limb by the Bacchantes, wild acolytes of the god of wine, as Orpheus is in the myth and in Striggio’s original libretto. Opera writers and composers are artists – hence, perhaps, their revisiting of Orpheus’ ability to compel through song even after death – but they also have to answer to patrons, who sometimes require their guests or audience to leave joyously, instead of in tears.

A patron’s request was not the only impetus away from TWI Bugs Bunnytragedy; Opera Buffa (Italian comedic opera) was developed out of stitching together the short musical interludes between the acts of a more serious play. Its lively approach is most famously illustrated in its early stages by the 1734 opera La Serva Padrona (The Maid made Mistress) by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Attendees enjoyed watching the more relatable characters from a variety of classes, as well as the stories less bound by spectacle and tradition than dramatic opera. While tricking another into marriage is a common theme, both master and maid finish their tale alive, and, naturally, Uberto realizes that he loved his maid Serpina all along. There is little subtlety in naming a scheming maid Serpina, but her plot is ultimately harmless, and her adventure is relatable to both men and women in the audience.

Seeing oneself and others through the tilted mirror of the stage was also happening in England, where composer John Gay turned a sardonic look at his culture into The Beggar’s Opera. The opera immediately caught on with audiences due to its humor, diverse characters, and thinly-veiled satire of the contemporary British government and the airs of famous Italian divas alike. 1750 was, in fact, a very good year for operas with happy endings: The Beggar’s Opera opened in New York City as one of the first musical comedies produced in the United States, and Padrona was first performed in France, leading to the development of the French opéra comique, and a spirited debate between supporters and steadfast dramatic opera fans. One thing they could not debate, however, was that this variety of opera attracted a crowd.

Merola's 2013 Production of Le nozze di Figaro, featuring John Arnold and Maria Valdes. Photo by Kristen Loken

Merola’s 2013 production of Le nozze di Figaro, featuring John Arnold and Maria Valdes. Photo by Kristen Loken

As comedic opera flourished, composers like Mozart used elements from dramatic opera to create operas like Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) with a mixture of serious and ridiculous characters, and a more complex plot. Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte weaved the tale of the Count’s wandering eyes, several courtly plots, and love regained, which ends after only a little bloodshed and with two newly married and one reconciled couple celebrating together. Figaro had a strong debut that led poet Ferenc Kazinczy to note “…the joy which this music causes is so far removed from all sensuality that one cannot speak of it. Where could words be found that are worthy to describe such joy?” As one of the most regularly performed operas in the 20th and 21st century, perhaps Kazinczy is on to something with his praise of Figaro: happy endings in opera are both created and persist out of our desire to experience something joyful. Something, to be fair, that has its share of challenges, but is worth the pin-pricks, class struggles, and romantic rivals along the way.

Taryn Graham is a writer who lives in San Francisco and enjoys the Bay Area’s vibrant culture, often Tweeting her findings at @gastronavigator. When not helping out at Merola Opera Program or SF Playhouse’s performances, she volunteers behind the scenes at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market.

Resources & Further Reading

Bareket, Donna and Eisendrath, Anne. “The Beggar’s Opera”. The Eighteenth-Century England Website. Web. 28 January 2015.

“Comic Opera”. Encyclopedia Brittanica. Web. 28 January 2015.

Elson, Arthur. “The Rise of Light Opera.” In A History of Opera. Boston: L.C. Page & Co., 1901.

“L’Orfeo,” “Le nozze di Figaro,” “La Serva padrona”. Web. 28 January 2015.

Sorabella, Jean. “The Opera.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-. Web. 27 January 2015.

Desire and Don Giovanni

By Tracy Grant

Last Summer, I had the fun and privilege of talking at Book Passage in Corte Madera about the two operas in the Merola Summer Festival Season, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I’ve been thinking back to that talk as we anticipate our Merola Goes to the Movies screening of Don Giovanni on January 25  featuring Thomas Hampson (Merola 1980) and the Vienna Philharmonic. This seems a good time to revisit the common themes is these two operas, both timeless stories. What follows is the text of my talk. We interspersed it with recorded excerpts, so I’m including what was played.

Merola 2014 A Streetcar Named Desire - Thomas Gunther (Stanley) and Julie Adams (Stella). Photo by Kristen Loken.

Merola 2014 A Streetcar Named Desire – Thomas Gunther (Stanley) and Julie Adams (Stella). Photo by Kristen Loken.

Both operas have literary origins. Don Giovanni, with a libretto by Mozart’s frequent collaborator Lorenzo da Ponte, is based on the early 17th century Spanish play El Buriador de Sevilla by Tirso de Molina. Streetcar, obviously, is based on the Tennessee Williams play, which the libretto by Philip Littell closely follows. When I heard these were the two operas for this summer, I was very intrigued because though they are very different stories, from different eras, set to different music, there are some strong thematic parallels. When I wrote about the two operas for our recent newsletter, I called the article “A Season of Desire.” Not only do the characters in both operas grapple with their desires, for Don Giovanni and Stanley Kowalski, sex is definitely  a way of expressing power. For the women in both operas, desire is a more complicated thing, largely due to the double-standard that existed both in the 18th century and the 1940s – and has not entirely vanished today. I thought I would frame my look at these two operas by playing excerpts from each that have thematic connections.

We begin with Don Giovanni in his element – bent on seduction. He is flirting with the peasant girl Zerlina. Don Giovanni and Zerlina just met at Zerlina’s wedding to her true love Masetto, but that merely makes things more interesting for Don Giovanni He begins in elegant 18th century fashion by asking her to give him her hand. In this recording Merola alumnus Thomas Hampson plays Don Giovanni and Barbara Bonney plays Zerlina.

[recording 1- La ci darem la mano]

Don Giovanni’s approach to Zerlina is that of a courtly 18th century aristocrat. Not that he cavils at cruder methods as he shows earlier in the opera with Donna Anna and later with Zerlina. But he is very much in the mold of the Vicomte de Valmont is Dangerous Liaisons. The conquest is all. There’s no evidence in DaPonte’s libretto that he has an emotional connection to any of his conquests.

street 2

Merola 2014 A Streetcar Named Desire – (left) Chong Wang, Thomas Gunther (Stanley), Ben Werley (Steve Hubbell) nd Casey Candebat (Mitch Mitchell). Photo by Kristen Loken.

Our next excerpt is an iconic scene from Streetcar. The setting and    circumstances are very different, but at the center we again have a baritone whose objective is to get a soprano into bed. The scene is a poker game at which Stanley loses his temper and hits his pregnant wife Stella. Stella and her sister Blanche flee upstairs to the apartment of their neighbor Eunice. Stanley then pleads with Stella to come back to him.This recording features the cast who premiered the opera at San Francisco Opera – Renée Fleming as Blanche, Elizabeth Futral as Stella, Rodney Gilfrey as Stanley, Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch, Judith Forst as Eunice, and Matthew Lord as Steve.

[recording 2 – poker scene/Stella]

Sex is at the heart of both these scenes, but unlike Don Giovanni, Stanley has an emotional connection to Stella, which Previn brings out in the lush underscoring that is both passionate and unexpectedly lyrical. Both Don Giovanni and Stanley equate sex with conquest, but while for  Giovanni the goal is to add more names to his catalogue for Stanley it’s more complicated. A lot of Stanley’s hostility to Blanche comes from the fact that he sees Blanche as trying to take Stella away from him (as Blanche literally does in this scene when she urges Stella to leave the apartment). There’s also a social class dynamic in both scenes. Stanley is very aware that Stella and Blanche came from a different world, symbolized by the lost plantation Belle Reve. He talks in another scene about pulling Stella down off those columns. Giovanni on the other hand is an aristocrat, which gives him power over Zerlina and also adds to his glamour in her eyes. Again, a house becomes a symbol of power and position in the world, as Giovanni talks about spiriting Zerlina off to his castle.

Merola 2014 Don Giovanni with Amanda Woodbury and Ben Werley. Photo by Kristen Loken.

Merola 2014 Don Giovanni with Amanda Woodbury (Donna Anna) and Ben Werley (Don Ottavio). Photo by Kristen Loken.

Both Giovanni and Stanley are baritones. In both operas, a tenor character offers a foil to each of these men. The next excerpt features Don Ottavio, singing of his love for his betrothed Donna Anna. At the beginning of the opera Don Giovanni breaks into Anna’s bedchamber. Exactly how far things go is unclear. In some productions, it is even implied that Anna perhaps was willing, at least at the start. What is clear, because we see it on stage, is that Giovanni then fights and kills Anna’s father. Anna makes Ottavio swear vengeance on the man who killed her father. Ottavio is reluctant to act until he knows for a certainty who the attacker was. In this aria, he explains that his peace of mind depends on that of his beloved. Hans Peter Blochwitz as Don Ottavio.

[recording 3 – Dalla sua pace]

For all Ottavio’s pretty words, Anna is reluctant to go ahead with their marriage. Her hesitation could stem from guilt over her father’s death, trauma from the assault. or potentially even because she has feelings for Don Giovanni herself.

In Streetcar, Mitch offers a gentler alternative to Stanley. And if Anna holds Ottavio at arms’ length, Blanche is eager, desperate even, to latch on to the security Mitch offers. Here, Mitch tells Blanche his mother wants to meet her, a prelude it seems to a proposal. Like Ottavio’s, his music is lyrical and fluid expressing a softer approach that speaks of love and yearning more than passion. Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch.

[recording 4 – Mitch aria, “I’m not getting any younger”]

Desire also motivates the women in both these operas, but they find it more

Merola 2014 Don Giovanni with Karen Chia-ling Ho (Donna Elvira) and Edward Nelson (Don Giovanni)

Merola 2014 Don Giovanni with Karen Chia-ling Ho (Donna Elvira) and Edward Nelson (Don Giovanni). Photo by Kristen Loken.

difficult to express. When Anna tells Ottavio about the masked man whobroke into her room she says at first she thought it was him. The implication is that she would not have been unhappy if it was, despite thefact that a tryst with a man who was not yet her husband would be seen as scandalous behavior for a gently bred 18th century lady. Donna Elvira, the third of Don Giovanni’s conquests in the opera, apparently has had a longer term relationship with him. In fact, she sees herself as his wife. He abandons her before the start of the opera, but throughout the story she is torn between a desire for vengeance and a desire for Don Giovanni himself. In this aria, she sees his downfall coming and yet confesses that she feels pity for him and that while her heart speaks of vengeance, her heart also still beats for him. The music pulses with emotions stronger than pity. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Donna Elvira.

[recording 5 – Mi tradi]

If Elvira is torn between her desire for vengeance and her desire for Don Giovanni, Blanche is torn between her desire to cast a romantic glow over stark reality and her personal experience of the harsh nature of life and the raw power of desire. In this scene Mitch has learned that Blanche is older than he believed and that she is not the prim woman she appeared to be. In the town she came from, she had a reputation for sleeping with the soldiers from the nearby camp, and she lost her teaching position for an affair with a student. As Blanche describes how the soldiers would stand on the lawn and call to her to come down to them – much as Stanley called to Stella in the earlier scene – a woman passes by selling flowers for the dead. Renée Fleming as Blanche, Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch, and Josepha Gayer as the flower seller.

[recording 6 – Blanche/Mitch]

Merola 2014 Don Giovanni - Scott Russell (center - Commendatore) and Edward Nelson (Don Giovanni). Photo by Kristen Loken.

Merola 2014 Don Giovanni – Scott Russell (Commendatore) and Edward Nelson (Don Giovanni). Photo by Kristen Loken.

What drives Don Giovanni to his conquests is never spelled out in the opera. For Blanche on the other hand, desire is an escape from the death and destruction around her as she saw her parents die and her home lost. “Death the opposite is desire,” she tells Mitch. Interestingly the woman selling flowers for the dead mentions flames and fire at the end of the excerpt, foreshadowing Blanche’s destruction. Flame also signals Giovanni’s destruction, when the statue of Anna’s father comes to life and drags the unrepentant Giovanni down to hell. Though Stanley and Giovanni both equate desire with conquest, it is Blanche and Giovanni who are destroyed. And yet when Stanley uses sexual violence to win his struggle with Blanche, he may sew the seeds that will unravel his relationship with Stella.

Join us for our Merola Goes to the Movies screening of Don Giovanni on Sunday, January 25, 1 pm at the San Francisco Public Library Main Branch Koret Auditorium | 100 Larkin Street at Grove Street in San FranciscoAdmission is free.

Tracy Grant is Merola’s Director of Foundation, Corporate, and Government Relations and also an historical novelist. Visit her website at

What Is Your Favorite Holiday Music?

By Tracy Grant

We’re in the midst of the mid-winter holiday season. We celebrate different holidays or just the winter season itselfMusic 3, with family, friends, and co-workers at events ranging from cocktail parties to cookie exchanges to potlucks, But the events share warmth and celebration of those we care about – and many involve music. Because music is at the heart of everything we do here at Merola, we asked some of our staff, board, and alumni to share their favorite holiday or winter-themed music. Some common themes emerged but also wonderful variety. We’d love to have you share your favorite music of the season in the comments.

Donna Blacker, Merola President: I have two favorite musical pieces from winter  – The snow scene from La bohème and the snow scene from The Nutcracker.  These probably come from missing the snow in the mountains that I grew up with as a child. I also love a lot of the winter/snow themed music of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby from the 40’s.  How corny is that?!?

Kristin Clayton, soprano, 1993 Merola alumna & Bojan Knezevic, baritone, 1992, 1993 & 1994 alumnus: My favorite is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sung by Judy Garland, and Bojan loves “Winter” from The Four Seasons by Vivaldi.

Leah Crocetto, soprano, 2008 Merola alumna: PS082709006My favorite Christmas pieces are two-fold.  The moment in Meet Me in St Louis with Judy Garland singing “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas” really shaped me as an artist and taught me about singing with emotion.  I first saw it when I was 6 years old on VHS and cried. The other piece is the Handel’s Messiah! My mother used to play the piece every day during the Holiday season. It was the Vienna Boy’s Choir version – LOVE IT!

Jayne Davis, Merola Chairman: I grew up with Beethoven’s Ninth and well do I remember the glorious fourth movement.  As a child it signified all the joy of Christmas to me.

Tracy Grant, Merola Director of Foundation, Corporate & Government Relations: I, too, love Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Butmusic 6 two pieces of music this time of year have special associations for me with my mother and my daughter. My Mom and I always sang Rodgers & Hart’s “The Shortest Day of the Year” on the Winter Solstice. I still sit down at the piano and play and sing it, now with my daughter. My three-year-old daughter, Mélanie loves Diana Krall’s holiday CD, particularly “Jingle Bells” which she calls “Jingle Bells Away.” We put it on and dance around the house. We started doing this last holiday season and have been playing it all year (it’s says something about Diana Krall’s talent and my own love of holiday music that I’m not tired of it).

Sheri Greenawald, San Francisco Opera Center Director: I always remember singing “Silver Bells” with my girl trio in high school, and it has stuck with me, because we managed, at this ONE performance, to be so perfectly in tune with each other on our chords, that I experienced an absolute overtone overload!  It was some of the most exciting music making of my life…way back when, because my girls and me…we rang those bells big time!  There was a reverberation that was truly special!  So, that remains something I cherish….I experienced the same “ringing” resonance one other time in a long career, and that with a TENOR, I’m embarrassed to say!!

SONY DSCJean Kellogg, Merola Executive Director: I have to choose just ONE?? For many years I sang “O Holy Night” at Mass at my mother’s church – a classic favorite that feels REALLY good to sing. And of course, singing in the Messiah chorus was a staple growing up as a child of classical musicians (my father was a choral director). It’s always fun to belt out the soprano part in the Hallelujah chorus! But this is all too typical….. Growing up in the south introduced me to some tunes that aren’t always on the radar – John Jacob Niles’s “I Wonder as I Wander” and the Spiritual “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” composed by Robert MacGimsey.   The latter sung by Mahalia Jackson is my favorite. I sang both many times with choirs and as solos in church. But of course, my earliest memories were of The Chipmunks Christmas.

Kelly Sepich, Merola Annual Benefit Manager: My favorite pieces of music for the holidays are “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland and “Every Year, Every Christmas” by  Luther Vandross.

Are  you are in the holiday mood yet? Click here as Sol 3 Mio, headed by Merola 2013 alum Pene Pati, makes sure you Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas!

Tracy Grant is Merola’s Director of Foundation, Corporate, and Government Relations and also an historical novelist. Visit her website at

Merola alum Brian Asawa returns to the Bay Area with a new CD

By Tracy Grant

Countertenor Brian Asawa made an indelible impression on Merola audiences in 1991 and later as an Adler Fellow. In the years since we have followed his career on opera stages around the world with excitement. We are thrilled to celebrate the release of Spirits of the Air, an innovative Baroque recording featuring Brian and mezzo-soprano Diana Tash. Merola and Lieder Alive! will host a CD release party at Salle Piano on November 7 (information below). Brian and Diana will sign copies of the CD (available at a special price) and discuss their collaboration while guests enjoy complimentary wine and nibbles. In advance of this special event, Brian sat down with us to talk about Spirits of the Air.

What was the inspiration for Spirits of the Air?

Spirits of the Air, the new CD by  Brian Asawa and  Diana Tash.

Spirits of the Air, by Brian Asawa and Diana Tash.

Baroque music has been my primary focus since I made the switch from tenor to countertenor. I fell in love with Early Music while singing in the UC Santa Cruz Chamber Singers, and we performed the gorgeous choral piece by Josquin des Pres Deploration sur la mort d’Ockeghem. When Diana Tash and I were thinking about a program to tour with, we came up with an all-Baroque program of arias, songs, and duets and paired ourselves up with a continuo group. Handel, Monteverdi, and Purcell were obvious choices for composers.

Tell us some more about collaborating with Diana on Spirits of the Air. What was it like working together? How did you choose the pieces for the recording?

Diana and I met at LA Opera in a production of Handel’s Xerxes, with Lorraine Hunt as my brother in the title role. We found each other years later, and performed a duo recital of Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Rossini, and she also joined me in several benefit recitals for my church West Los Angeles United Methodist Church. We are best friends, and she has become family. Working together is a fulfilling collaboration. There is a mutual admiration and respect for each other, and when there are any disagreements, we always work through them.

Regarding the repertoire, we wanted a mixture of well-known/easily accessible piecesBrian 1 juxtaposed  with more obscure/intricate works. The Monteverdi duet “Pur ti miro” from Poppea and Diana’s Monteverdi solos “Quel sguardo and Maledetto” are better known pieces. The Purcell duets are easily accessible to the listener’s ear, as are my three Scarlatti solos, which are often categorized as Arie Antiche. The anonymous duet “Si, si mio cor” was introduced to us by an LA coach, and represents a standard Baroque binary duet. Gagliano’s “Fanciuletta ritrosetta” harkens back to the Renaissance period with imitative features between the two voices. The two Handel operatic arias “Angels ever bright and fair” and “Cara Speme” are both well-known crowd pleasers, whereas the two virtuosic Handel duets “Conservate, raddopiate” and “Se tu non lasciamore” are lesser-known virtuosic chamber duets that nicely round out the recording.

What draws you to Baroque music?

There are so many aspects of Baroque music that I find attractive and intriguing. With regard to Baroque opera, the top composers were masters at composing dozens of arias, some fast with coloratura/fioratura, some slow, lamenting arias, and others with pastorale themes or coquettish affect, then taking a convoluted and often confusing story line, and masterfully pulling it all together with the perfect ebb and flow that provides an arch of fluidity. Pacing is obviously the key to keeping the audience’s attention in operas that often last three to four hours.

Outside of the opera realm, one only needs to listen to a Bach aria such as the alto aria “Erbarme dich” from the St. Matthew Passion, or a Vivaldi cantata with wicked coloratura and contrasting slower sections to realize that some of the most gorgeous and engaging music comes from the Baroque period.

Do you have a favorite Merola memory?

Merola Opera Program_The Bartered Bride_1991_5

Brian Asawa in Merola’s 1991 production of The Bartered Bride at Stern Grove.

I have many favorite memories from Merola. One was starting the day with Baroque aerobics. Another was being thrown up in the air by a fellow Merolini during every big choral/dance number as the gypsy boy in the ’91 production of The Bartered Bride. Luckily for him, I was thin back then. I will never forget Italian classes with our beloved Elena Servi, and finally my coaching sessions with Patrick Summers, which I will always cherish.

If you could give three pieces of  advice to the young artists who will be in Merola in the summer of 2015 what would they be?

1) Use your time wisely during Merola and really find the roles and arias that make you unique and help you to stand apart from the others.

2) Be open in your lessons and coachings with the staff in Merola, but always communicate and ask questions. Be a team player and be supportive of your colleagues. Show gratitude for this amazing opportunity. It will always come back to you.

3) Make as many alliances as possible over the summer, and most importantly, enjoy this once in a lifetime experience.

What upcoming projects can you share with your Merola fans?

I’m giving a master class at the Orange County School of the Arts on November 17th. I will be the first male invited to conduct a master class there, a great honor. Former singers who’ve given master classes there include Cheryl Studer, Dolores Ziegler, Roberta Alexander, and Milena Kitic.

I will be a solo artist with San Francisco Renaissance Voices in Bay Area concerts on January 2nd and 3rd, 2015.  I have also been offered a Messiah in December, but cannot announce until officially contracted. Finally, I’m excited to share that I’m in talks for a recital tour with a presenter in Los Angeles for later in the season, to be announced.

Admission to the Sprits of the Air CD release party on November 7, 7 pm – 8:30 pm, is free with advance reservation to Miriam Rosenfeld at or 415.565.6427. Salle Pianos is at 1632 C Market Street (behind Zuni Café). For information, click here.

Tracy Grant is Merola’s Director of Foundation, Corporate, and Government Relations and also an historical novelist. Visit her website at

“Free was I born! Free will I die!” The Story of “Carmen”

By Taryn Graham

Please note: this post discusses the plot and ending of Carmen.

Fantastic stories emerge when you look into the histories behind operas. EDITEDMerolaGoestotheMovies LogoAs someone prone to procrastination, learning that Mozart completed theCarmen3 final elements of Don Giovanni the evening before its first performance made me smile, while proving that brilliant things can happen under pressure. Similarly, the history of Georges Bizet and Carmen proves that equally compelling characters emerge when creators stick to their convictions (and their storyline).

Carmen is one of today’s most well-loved operas – even those with minimal exposure to opera likely know a little of the fiery gypsy’s story or recognize some of the music from her tale – but this was not always the case. Carmen’s libretto, written by Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, delved into darker themes than audiences were used to from the more family-friendly Opéra-Comique in 1870s Paris. Brash, seductive Carmen, who steals a man’s heart (and later has the audacity to leave him) was a character out of place on a stage then kinder to virtuous women than early femmes fatales. American music critic Harold C. Schonberg noted a similarity between Carmen and Don Giovanni:

Merola_Carmen 1As Bizet and his librettists conceived her, she is a tragic heroine because she dies for her principles. In that, she resembles Don Giovanni, who may be a rake, a lecher, a rotter, but is a tragic hero because he goes to his death refusing to recant… Similarly, at the conclusion of the Bizet opera, Carmen knows that Don José will kill her. She accepts death rather than go with him. She has been a free spirit and will die a free spirit. Thus she emerges as a tragic heroine.

While Don Giovanni’s debut was enthusiastically received, Carmen‘s was Merola_Carmen 2rocky. After Bizet refused the theater director’s requests to tone down some of the plot, the opera met – and overcame – difficulties ranging from finding a leading lady to a chilly initial reception in 1875. However, the tides began to turn in Carmen’s favor even as mezzo-soprano Célestine Galli-Marié stepped into her shoes. Galli-Marié was a staunch defender of Bizet’s work, often supporting him in conflicts with the theater’s management. Overshadowed by Verdi’s Requiem, Carmen initially ran for thirty-six shows, with Bizet dying of heart disease on the evening of the thirty-third show. His untimely death piqued the public’s interest, but after it closed, Carmen would not be performed in Paris until 1883.

In the meanwhile, a more successful revival in Prague attracted fellowMerola_Carmen 3 composers Wagner and Brahms, the latter of whom saw the opera several times, and said, after watching, that he “would have ‘gone to the ends of the earth to embrace Bizet'” (Curtiss 426). Productions in Brussels, London, and New York quickly followed. By the time that Enrico Caruso performed the part of Don José to a packed Grand Opera House, hours before the San Francisco building’s roof caved in during the 1906 earthquake, Carmen had established its place in the opera canon, eventually becoming one of the most popular operas performed today.

Join us for a free screening of the 1984 film adaptation of Carmen at Merola Goes to the Movies on Sunday, October 26. The show will begin at 1:00 p.m. at the SF Public Library’s Main Branch (100 Larkin Street.) For more information, please check our calendar.

References & Further Reading:

“Carmen,” “Célestine Galli-Marié,” “Don Giovanni,” Web. 1 Oct 2014.

Curtiss, Mina. Bizet and his World. London: Secker & Warburg, 1959. Print.

“Enrico Caruso and the 1906 Earthquake,” Web. 30 Sept 2014.

Schonberg, Harold C. “Peter Brook’s ‘Carmen’ stirs lively debate.” The New York Times. N.p., 27 Nov. 1983. Web. 1 Oct. 2014.

Taryn Graham is a writer who lives in San Francisco and enjoys the Bay Area’s vibrant culture, often Tweeting her findings at @gastronavigator. When not helping out at Merola Opera Program or SF Playhouse’s performances, she volunteers behind the scenes at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market.

Passion. Betrayal. The History Behind Anna Bolena.

By Tracy Grant

On September 21, Merola Goes to the Movies Anna Bolena 6will present a film of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at the Vienna State Opera featuring 1996 Merola alumna Anna Netrebko in one of her signature roles. Anna Bolena is a lyrical Italian bel canto opera deeply rooted in English history. The opera, with a libretto by Felice Romani based on Ippolito Pindemonte’s Enrico VIII ossia Anna Bolena and Alessandro Pepoli’s Anna Bolena, tells the story of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn, a story familiar from countless dramatizations including Anne of the Thousand Days and The Other Boleyn Girl.

Most historical fiction takes some liberties with the historical record, from the minor to the sweeping. The opera is certainly no exception. It begins with Enrico (Henry) and Anna already married and glosses over Henry’s desperation for a male heir which led to him divorcing his first wife Catherine of Aragon (not to mention breaking away from the Catholic Church) and the political machinations of Anne’s family which also played a role in throwing the two of them together.

When the opera opens, Enrico’s interest has already turned to Giovanna (Jane) Seymour, oneAnna Bolena 7 of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting in historical fact, as she is in the opera. Anne’s former betrothed was named Henry (Harry) Percy, not Ricardo (Richard) Percy as in the opera (the change was perhaps to avoid confusion with King Henry). In real life, Percy and Anne wanted to marry and may have had a pre-contract. In the opera Percy claims they did, saying he and Anna were married in the sight of God. In the opera, Enrico pushes Anna and Percy together and Anna’s downfall comes about when she and Percy are caught in a seemingly compromising situation. In reality, though Henry or at least his agents may well have manipulated the accusations of infidelity against Anne to bring about her downfall, Percy was actually not one of the men with whom she was accused of adultery.

Musician Mark Anna BolenaSmeaton was accused of adultery with Anne, as in the opera, and falsely confessed to the crime. In the opera he does so in the mistaken belief it will save Anna’s life. In reality, Smeaton probably confessed under torture. He was executed in real life, as he is in the opera. Anne was also accused of infidelity with her brother George, Lord Rochefort, as she is in the opera. In the opera. Rochefort and Percy are pardoned but choose to die with Anna. In reality, Rochefort was executed. Percy in fact, served on the jury at Anne’s trial, though he is said to have collapsed at the guilty verdict or perhaps before the vote was taken.

The opera ends with Anna going mad and going to her execution as Henry VIII and Giovanna Seymour are married. The historical Anne was in fact remarkably stoic through out her tral and execution, and Henry and Jane Seymour’s marriage took place 11 days after Anne was beheaded.

Historical differences aside, Donizetti’s opera is a gripping drama set to a stirring score, a musical and dramatic treat for lovers of both opera and history.

Join us for Merola Goes to the Movies on Sunday, September 21st at 1 pm at the SF Public Library Main Branch (100 Larkin Street) for a free screening of Anna Bolena. For information, please visit here.

Tracy Grant is Merola’s Director of Foundation, Corporate, and Government Relations and also an historical novelist. Visit her website at


Interview with Omer Ben Seadia, Merola Grand Finale Stage Director and Merolini

As the stage director for Merola Opera Program’s 2014 season, Omer Ben Seadia views her role as one that generates conversation and helps to bring everyone – from conductors to singers to costumers – into the same discussion, and with them, tell a story. She particularly enjoys working with the performers noting that while everyone in Merola comes from different places and cultures, opera is a medium that unites them in presenting something powerful. “The themes in opera are universal; we all have the experience of being human…and [with opera], we have an added bonus of the music, which gives us the feel of the place the opera is set in, and of the piece itself. Music gives us a sense of the place the opera comes from, and where we can take it.”Seadia, Omer Ben

Opera has always been a part of Omer’s life: “I grew up in the opera,” she notes; “my parents worked with the Israeli Opera, so I was going to rehearsals from the age of four. I started working with the opera at 15 and worked there for ten years.” Her next step was to Seminar Hakibbutzim College’s School of Performing Arts, where she studied theater direction,before formally studying opera at the University of Cincinnati. And now? “There’s no average day-in-the-life at Merola,” she laughs warmly. “I work with great teachers, coaches, directors, and conductors, all amazing and generous… and a wonderful group of singers and accompanists; through Merola, we’re creating professional and personal bonds that will last our entire careers.”

Through the program, she has had the opportunity to take master classes and coaching seminars, while also sitting in on mainstage San Francisco Opera rehearsals. She has also been able to connect with other opera professionals and ask them questions in a professional venue. “I’m incredibly grateful for Sheri Greenawald and Mark Morash… They’ve collected an impressive group of people, with tremendous teachers, who we’ve learned from immensely over the summer.”

Her words are full of enthusiasm when she talks about her time at Merola, and the connections with the wider opera community, which she describes as creative and vibrant. “I can see incredible performances around the city, and learn from them; sometimes incorporating elements of what I saw last night into the next day’s rehearsal.” She describes her fellow artists as passionate, insightful, and generous, and the audience as committed, very supportive, and involved in the overall process. “We’re supported by a vast community,” she explains, “by the Amici de Merola, our volunteers, and our audience. They’ve been incredibly kind and invested, and have grown with us over the summer.”

And while she remains quiet on any sneak peeks for this year’s Grand Finale on August 16, Omer shares that she’s very excited to be a part of the season’s final show in the War Memorial Opera House. “It’s going to be a great show… an evening varied in style, and origins, with an incredible group of people.”

Catch up with Omer and the Merola team on Saturday, August 16 for the finale of the 2014 Merola season – hope to see you there!

For information on the Merola Grand Finale, click here.

Taryn Graham is a writer who lives in San Francisco and enjoys the Bay Area’s vibrant culture, often Tweeting her findings at @gastronavigator. When not helping out at Merola Opera Program or SF Playhouse’s performances, she volunteers behind the scenes at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market.

Ten Trivia Snippets on Don Giovanni

By Taryn Graham

1. Even brilliant composers can procrastinate: while Don Giovanni was first performed in Prague on October 29, 1787, its composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mo

Amanda Woodbury, Edward Nelson, Karen Chia-Ling Ho, Yujin Kim

Amanda Woodbury, Edward Nelson, Karen Chia-Ling Ho, Yujin Kim

zart, is said to have finished the overture the night before the opera’s premiere.

2. Mozart worked with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte on three of his most famous operas: Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte. Da Ponte wrote the libretti, or dialogue and stage directions, while Mozart composed the musical score and was Don Giovanni’s first conductor.

3. Giacomo Casanova lived in Prague while Mozart and Da Ponte were working on Don Giovanni, and Da Ponte introduced Casanova to Mozart. In a case of fact potentially influencing fiction, scholars like Alfred Meissner have claimed Casanova worked with Mozart on final revisions to Don Giovanni’s libretto.

4. While many consider Don Giovanni to be a comic opera (opera buffa), it employs weighty dramatic themes: death, vengeance, and betrayal are part of the plot from the opera’s first scenes. Scholar George E. Gingras notes: “Out of the dialectic of composer and librettist emerged neither the opera seria envisaged by the former nor the opera buffa that the latter might have secretly desired but a fusion of the two, a true dramma giocoso… a formal dramatic work on a serious subject with pervasive comic force running through it.”

5. The dance music in Act I is one of the most elaborate in Mozart’s operas: the dance music represents different social classes. The three melodies play simultaneously, balancing a minuet in 3/4 time, a 2/4 contradanse, and a peasants’ dance in 3/8.

6. Through the late 18th and 19th centuries, it was believed an opera should end once the title character dies. Mozart composed a shorter version of the score to oblige the theatres, resulting in the final ensemble’s omission from early performances. This changed in the early 20th century, and the ensemble is almost always performed today.

DG CHOICE 47. The role of Don Giovanni was written specifically for Luigi Bassi, the Italian baritone who sung the role of Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro.

8. Bassi asked Mozart specifically to compose something that would best display his vocal talents. Mozart responded by writing “Là ci darem la mano,” which Giovanni sings to Zerlina in the opera’s first act.  It proved to be an inspiring duet; variations on “Là ci…” were later written by Chopin, Danzi, and Beethoven.

9. Don Giovanni tells a story with surprising longevity: Don Juan-themed operas were popular in Prague in the 18th century, inspiring Mozart when he visited in 1787. The first 18th century Don Juan opera was Antonio Denzio’s La pravità castigate, premiering in 1730, but the character first appeared in Tirso de Molina’s play, El Burlador de Sevilla (1630). Don Juan’s myth continues to inspire songwriters, playwrights, and directors, from George Bernard Shaw’s drama Man and Superman (which directly references the Mozart opera) to the 2005 film Broken Flowers, directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Bill Murray.

10. Operabase, a global database of opera performances and artists, lists Don Giovanni as the tenth most performed opera in the world from the 2008-09 to the 2012-13 season. Verdi’s La traviata tops the list.

See Don Giovanni this Saturday (August 2nd) at 2:00 pm at the Everett Auditorium in San Francisco. For information click here.



Naugle, David, PhD. “Søren Kierkegaard’s Interpretation of Mozart’s Opera Don Giovanni: An Appraisal and Theological Response” Accessed 27 July 2014.

Perrottet, Tony. “When Casanova Met Mozart.” N.p., 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 27 July 2014.

San Francisco Opera Education: Don Giovanni – Themes. Accessed 26 July 2014.

Sola-Sole, Josep M. and Gingras, George E. (1988). Tirso’s Don Juan: the Metamorphosis of a Theme.

“Don Giovanni,” “Don Juan,” “Luigi Bassi,” “Lorenzo Da Ponte,” Web. 27 July 2014.

Finales and Final Days at Merola

By Jessie Leider

To my complete disbelief, a whopping eleven weeks have gone by since I began working at Merola!

Neil Shicoff works with Merola artists Matthew Newlin. Photo by Kristen Loken.

Neil Shicoff works with Merola artists Matthew Newlin. Photo by Kristen Loken.

Last week concluded yet another unforgettable Merola summer season and marks the end of my time interning here. Like many of the Merolini, I will be packing my suitcases and leaving sunny California in a very short time, and as I look back on these few months I couldn’t feel more privileged to have had this experience. Not only have I had the unique and incredible opportunity to watch some of the brightest musicians, coaches, and singers at work; I have gained insight into the intricate underpinnings of a non-profit organization, borne of collaboration, selflessness, and a commitment to the current and future generations of young artists.

When I first posted back in June, I had been here only a few day, yet I had already observed that our Merolini go on to wonderful careers. Our alumni continue to appear in world-class productions with major opera companies worldwide, and I certainly applaud that success. But this summer has opened my eyes to an entirely different aspect of Merola: the process. Yes, it’s exciting when we can open our programs at the Met and find a former Merolini in the cast listing.

Merola young artists Robert Watson (standing) and Alex DeSocio perform a scene from Billy Budd during the Merola Grand Finale. Photo by Kristen Loken.

Merola young artists Robert Watson (standing) and Alex DeSocio perform a scene from Billy Budd during the Merola Grand Finale. Photo by Kristen Loken.

But our summers at Merola celebrate the growth of these talented young artists – the twists and turns of their development as singers, coaches, stage directors, artists, and people. Last night, while I sat and watched John DeMain teach our final master class of the season, I was moved to hear him speak about the tension between the technical training and the personal development of each artist. He emphasized how important it is for the Merolini to go through this “chiseling” and fine-tuning process without losing sight of who they want to be as individuals. I couldn’t feel more strongly that Merola provides this space for its young artists, a supportive environment with room to evolve.But perhaps even more special is the opportunity Merola gives to others to become a part of that process and to celebrate that process!

Our audience members aren’t merely spectators who have come to enjoy a polished product but supporters who have come to join our Merolini on their journey as artists. In a world where many tend to focus on speed and final results rather than underlying process, I feel blessed to have contributed to an organization that trumpets the value of process.I’m sure it won’t be long before we start seeing our 2013 Merolini in the Opera headlines! As for me, I’ll be heading back to New York City for my junior year of college, equipped with all of the new skills I’ve acquired through this internship and organization.

I’ll miss these artists and all my great coworkers and friends I’ve made in the office but look forward to hopefully making a return visit next summer!


Schwabacher Shenanigans at Yerba Buena Gardens

It’s a quiet week here at the Merola office, which is a nice change after last week’s amazing performances of the Schwabacher Summer Concert. We couldn’t have asked for a better day to put on our annual Schwabacher Summer Concert at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco; the sun was shining, people were picnicking, and our Merolini gave spot-on performances from quite a diverse set of opera scene selections. The indoor concert may have featured better acoustics, more elaborate staging, helpful supertitles, enhanced costumes and a more formal setting, but there is something about opera outdoors on an (unusually) sunny San Francisco day that is especially magical.

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