History of Merola Opera Program

Merola Opera Program Historic Milestones

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Gaetano Merola, San Francisco Opera’s founder and first General Director, dies at Stern Grove while conducting a young American singer in “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly.


The Verdi Requiem Mass is performed at the War Memorial Opera House in memory of Gaetano Merola. The event gives public recognition to the foundation of the Merola Memorial Fund.


Articles of incorporation are filed for the Merola Memorial Fund. Mrs. Starr Bruce is elected the first President of the Board. The Fund is initially used to underwrite the San Francisco Opera Debut Auditions, professional auditions for singers from the western United States.


The Fund begins to provide financial support for a training program as well as auditions. The Program lasts four weeks, 14 singers participate, and there are two principal instructors, Matthew Farruggio and Otto Guth. Maestro Adler comes in once a day. James Schwabacher, a Merola Board member and singer himself, is program chairman.


Mrs. Starr Bruce resigns as President. James Schwabacher is elected to succeed her.


The Board votes to change the name of the Merola Memorial Fund to the Merola Opera Program. A cash prize, given by the Schwabacher family, is part of the Audition Finals. The award is the catalyst for other philanthropic music lovers. The Merola participants present a fully staged complete opera for the first time, Madama Butterfly at Stern Grove.


Merola begins to present two complete operas each summer.


Merola receives a generous grant of $17,500 from the National Opera Institute enabling the Program to offer participants a subsistence allowance in addition to funding their travel to San Francisco.


For the first time the San Francisco Opera Auditions Grand Finals are held at the end of the Program rather than the beginning. The core teaching by member of the San Francisco Opera staff is by this time augmented with conductors, coaches, stage directors and other professionals. Special master classes are added featuring opera luminaries such as Renato Capecchi, Walter Legge and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.


Merola establishes an Apprentice Coach Program. Four young pianists are chosen to work side by side with the twenty or so in the vocal training program. The Program now lasts ten weeks.


Terence McEwan, who succeed Kurt Herbert Adler as San Francisco Opera (SFO) General Director, announces the creation of the San Francisco Opera Center (SFOC). The SFOC unites the various training programs associated with SFO under one umbrella. Merola remains a separate organization with its own membership and fundraising, but the Merola summer training program is coordinated with the Opera Center's other programs, which allows the young artists further opportunities after their ten weeks at Merola. Eight to twelve Merola participants are chosen to be Adler Fellows. They receive further training and play supporting roles on the SFO main stage.


James Schwabacher is elected Merola's first Chairman. Dr. A. Jess Shenson succeeds him as President.


Jayne Davis becomes Merola President.


The Merola Board votes to abolish cash prizes and judging at the Merola Grand Finals. Instead, Merola Career Grants are established, designed to support all Merolini after they leave the Program. The Merola Grand Finals are renamed the Merola Grand Finale.


Merola adds an apprentice stage director to the Program.


Rusty Rolland becomes Merola President.


An eleventh week is added to the summer training program.


David S. Hugle becomes Merola President.


Merola adds a "Scenes Concert" featuring the Merola artists not cast in leading roles in the summer’s two operas. It later becomes known as the Schwabacher Summer Concert.


Jim Schwabacher dies.


Jayne Davis becomes Merola Chairman. Merola celebrates its 50th anniversary. The year is dedicated to Jim Schwabacher. The celebrations include a gala concert with returning alumni, a book about Merola’s first fifty years, a CD of arias by notable Merola graduates and the world premiere of Thomas Pasatieri’s The Hotel Casablanca. A twelth week is added to the Program for the Apprentice Coaches. In October, Patrick Wilken becomes Merola President.


Donna L. Blacker becomes Merola President. In October, Merola hires its first Executive Director, Jean Kellogg.