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The Pride of the Merolini

Sheri Greenawald's eye for talent has brought new luster to San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program, where she has served as artistic director since 2002. F. PAUL DRISCOLL caught up with the soprano as preparations were beginning for Merola's 2013 season, now underway.

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San Francisco Opera Center's Greenawald
© Scott Wall 2013
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© Scott Wall 2013
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With 2013 Adler Fellow Philippe Sly, a Canadian bass-baritone who is also an alumnus of the 2011 Merola Opera Program
© Scott Wall 2013

Sheri Greenawald's name has been a byword for quality throughout her career — for three decades as a much-admired singer and, more recently, as a teacher of rare acuity and honesty. Since spring 2002, the Iowa-born soprano has been director of the San Francisco Opera Center, where she oversees the professional progress of San Francisco Opera's Adler Fellows, and artistic director of the Merola Opera Program, the annual summer session celebrated as one of the world's best training grounds for opera singers. Today, Greenawald is having lunch at San Francisco's landmark restaurant Top of the Mark shortly before departing on an audition tour for the 2013 Merola season, which will offer performances of The Rape of Lucretia and Le Nozze di Figaro. She is a disarming interview subject: plainspoken and irreverent yet firm of purpose, Greenawald is wary enough of flattery to flick away a compliment about her work with the "Merolini," claiming, "I inherited a very good formula."

OPERA NEWS: We are in mid-October now as we're speaking, so you're starting the selection process for the Merola Program season next summer. How many Merolini are you looking for?

SHERI GREENAWALD: We only have twenty-three singer spots. I have five pianist spots, and I have one director spot. So we are on the hunt for twenty-three singers. We've had 974 singers apply this year. Probably when we sort through, we'll hear between 500 and 600 of those singers. We do have to weed it down.

ON: Do you hear all of them personally?

SG: I hear them all personally. It's called quality control. You've got to do it yourself if you really are going to be happy with the product. But the good thing is I never get tired of the kids. My butt gets tired of the chair, and my legs get a little swollen by the end of the day from all that sitting. But the actual act of listening to kids sing — I could do that all day long. It never bores me, because it's always a challenge for me to try to figure out what they're doing. You know, you can tell a lot just from their physicality when they walk into the room.

ON: In one of the interviews of yours that I read online, you said that when you were performing, you had voice teachers in London with whom you checked in. Who were they?

SG: It was just Audrey — Audrey Langford. She was my teacher. I met her in Santa Fe, because Richard Gaddes would always bring her to Santa Fe every summer. Richard and John Crosby. So I met her in Santa Fe when I was about twenty-nine years old, and I studied with her until she died. That was my teacher. She was sitting in Bromley.

ON: Clearly, you had terrific training as a singer — at the University of North Iowa, Juilliard — and a very distinguished professional career. But a lot of people your age or even younger don't know as much about the mechanics of the voice as you do. You talk about the voice in a very specific — 

SG: Mechanical way.

ON: How did that process start? How did you educate yourself? Or who educated you?

SG: Audrey, mostly. Audrey would always say to me, "I can tell you so much, then you've got to go read Gray's Anatomy." And she had a Gray's Anatomy in her studio, and now, so do I. Look, my parents were both science teachers. I grew up with a scientific method being espoused by my parents. Observation is critical to a scientist, and I inherited powers of observation, I guess. 

But Audrey was the first teacher that said to me, "Honey, where's your tongue?" "I don't know, Audrey." "Well, it's halfway down your throat." And I'd say, "Oh, okay." No one had ever discussed the anatomy with me. Everybody always talks about sound. But as I always say to my students, "I am not a sound engineer. I am just a mechanic. I am your mechanic." I do believe if you get the mechanics right, the sound is right. That's my theory on it. Take it or leave it, but that's how I feel. It's not for me to create your sound. It's only for me to make sure you are singing optimally with the apparatus you have.

ON: What's the one thing that you look to fix or work on first? What's the single biggest technical issue?

SG: The use of air, the breath. How to support their instrument. Because sometimes support is taught in very bizarre ways, if you ask me. I think kids are often asked to do things about breath that are absolutely antithetical to what the body requires. So I cannot tell you how many times I write on my sheets as I'm judging, 'Holding her breath and trying to sing.' They're holding their breath. I just don't get it. You can't hold your breath and sing. I mean it's just — 

ON: But how does that start? 

SG: I think people just misjudge terminologies that they read in books a lot — such as the term "the appoggio," right? To me, the term "appoggio" is a word describing the physical effect that we feel in the body when you close the vocal cords and you feel the breath compression. And you feel that compression in your body. That would give you a sense of feeling a lean — something, because you feel that compression. But that doesn't mean you then [Grunts] hold that out. That's where complications come — someone interpreting something in a way that just doesn't work physiologically or anatomically. Ignoring the physics of how it works.

ON: Is it difficult to get young singers to concentrate on the mechanics?

SG: I don't give them any choice. My warm-ups are boring as toast. You couldn't get more boring. I just make them sing vowels to me. They have to sing vowels correctly. That's it. As I say, the vowel is the building block of a syllable, and the syllable is the building block of a word, and a word is a building block of a sentence, which is a building block of a phrase. And if I'm not understanding your vowels, then what? Then we're dead.

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With mezzo-soprano Erin Johnson, a 2013 Adler Fellow and a participant in the 2012 Merola Opera Program
© Scott Wall 2013

ON: Is there a particular composer or school of music that you think is better for younger singers than others?

SG: When I was at the University of Northern Iowa [as an undergraduate], I would go to the library there and listen and look at the music. I literally would just plow through stacks of stuff, right? One time, I found this piece of music I loved. It was the Italian tenor aria from Rosenkavalier — but it was not identified as that in this album. So I took it into my lesson, because I was moved by it. Today, so many kids just do what they think they're supposed to do without going to explore. I could never sing a piece of music well if I didn't relate to it on some level. The first thing I would always do, at least with songs, was read the poetry. I'd have to know, what is this about? Is this something I want to talk about or not? Maybe I was way too scientific about things. 

ON: No.

SG: For kids — of course, within the realm of what is feasible for your particular voice type — I say, 'Find the music you love, that you have to sing.' I always get such a kick out of the fact that everybody just like pooh-poohs the aria from The Old Maid and the Thief, by Gian Carlo Menotti — because indeed every young lyric soprano in the country sings it at some time or another. And people, of course, love to knock Gian Carlo, but why? At his best, is he any less interesting than Puccini? To me, "Steal me, sweet thief"is a straight-up Puccini aria. That's what it is. 

So I would sing that, because I understood that aria to the depths of my soul. I could sing it for you today and make you like it. Trust me! You know, that was just a piece of music, but I took it in. That was what I sang for Leonard Bernstein — that was the first thing I sang for him. And it got me a job. I could make that aria live for people, because I was committed to it in a very specific way. So find that music you're committed to — that you have to sing. That's what I did.

ON: Is Mozart especially suited to young singers? Do you think that's true?

SG: You've got to learn to sing Mozart. I do agree with that. Now, some voices get tied up in knots thinking that it has to sound a particular way. Just sing it first, for God's sake. Just go into it and sing it. We can talk about the details later — maybe not so much vibrato on this pitch or we can talk about the details of the phrasing. But let your voice figure it out first. We make a mistake when we want them all to be perfect right away. Let them sing the Mozart first, and then teach them more about the style. Just let them sing the lines and figure out that they're not as scary as they think they are.

ON: Do you think that there is certain music or pieces of music that a young singer shouldn't touch? 

SG: I have my bugaboo, which is all these light voices coming in with "Ain't it a pretty night?" AAAAAGH. That is one of my bugaboos. Does no one understand out there that the orchestra for this thing is like Wagner? Has anybody figured this out yet? You do need to have something that does stretch you, but then at least stretch to something that's appropriate. I believe singing Donizetti's good for them, but the tenor pieces in Donizetti, they're not easy always. You've got to be careful about that. There's a lot of passaggio work. That's not as light as people think it is. 

ON: Is there any particular voice type that you think is thin on the ground right now?

SG: Well, big baritones, real baritones, big real baritones

ON: Like a Verdi baritone?

SG: Yeah. Those guys. You know, you don't run into them very often. And I think the contralto has totally disappeared almost off the face of the earth. A lot of people may be calling themselves that, but I'm not sure that they always are that actual voice.

ON: What do you think the reason for that is?

SG: Well, we could blame the hormones in the water. Couldn't we? [Both laugh.]

SG: We're all becoming sopranos. I hate to tell you. You know, you do begin to wonder if it's not something in the water. Contraltos are just very rare, a very rare bird. I always say, "If you're a mezzo, you've got to prove it to me."

ON: So you have people here for your eleven or twelve weeks in the Merola Program — and they can do two seasons, yes?

SG: They can, yeah.

ON: So how do you let them go out into the world? You've taught them this great stuff.

SG: Well, you just hope that they remember what they've been offered here. For some, a lot of it really does stick. My goal is that they all improve during the summer. It doesn't matter whether or not they're going to become Adler Fellows. I want everybody to leave here singing better and understanding themselves as an artist better — understanding their voice better even. I hope that they can leave with that. And then you just pray for them.

When Patrick Carfizzi was [at San Francisco Opera] for the Nixon in China, he came and talked to the Merolini with me one day. And their little eyes just went pop! — because Patrick was talking about making a budget and living within it. These kids just don't know what to make of all this, because we're talking about preparing for what is going to come down the line. But singers are so impractical, you know? They're not thinking about budgets. All they're thinking about is allergies.

I have a picture of the singer's brain on my wall, and right in the middle a big part of it is "allergies." Then there's "water" over here and "sex" up here. Not a very complicated brain. It's hilarious. spacer 

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10