A new opera for Merola

Who wouldn’t want to write a new opera for the Merolini, with their fresh voices and boundless talent? The Merola Opera Program has a reputation for fostering the best of each generation’s young opera singers.

The program, now in its sixth decade, has an enviable alumni roster that includes many of today’s luminaries:Anna Netrebko, Patricia Racette, Nadine Sierra, Ruth Ann Swenson, Deborah Voigt, Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Dolora Zajick, Brian Asawa, Brian Jagde, Stuart Skelton, Rolando Villazón, and Thomas Hampson, among many, many others.

This year, on August 1–6, the program presented its first commissioned full-length opera, written specifically for the singers it fosters and supports. If I Were You is the fifth opera by composer Jake Heggie; the libretto, derived from the novel Si j’étais vous by Julien Green, was written by Gene Sheer, a long-time collaborator with Heggie.

Michael Day sings Fabian in “If I Were You” by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, presented by by the Merola Opera Program. Photo by Frank Wing.

It’s a Faustian story about an ambitious young writer who makes a deal with a devil. The victim of a car crash, Fabian, sung the first night by Michael Day, is offered continued life by a devil who keeps tab on Fabian by shifting shape as she follows him in his search for a new body and new soul. Unlike Faust, who is seeking the ultimate in human experience – unlimited knowledge, unconditional love and wealth without end – Fabian seeks only to survive, to find a vision of the world in which he feels fulfilled. An identity, if you will, that he can claim as his own.

To “shed the soul that burdens me” he enters into the bodies of others and becomes them. This creates a striking theatrical situation, in which singers continue to change identities. Though it was unclear to me if Fabian entirely infiltrates his new body/soul, or if with each new identity he merely wraps another layer onto his individuality, like a tree adding rings of growth each year. In the course of the opera Fabian assumes the persona of his publisher, a punk, and his would-be girlfriend Diana’s best friend Selena.

The drama and mystery of the opera’s central trope allows for a lush musical survey. The music of the opera opens frenetic and ominous, shifting soon to Hallelujahs and then to the mambo. The music very much illustrative to the situation and the dialog. This multiple genre bending is something Heggie is very good at. He is also very good at writing songs that enrich the singer’s voice, and within which they can feel entirely comfortable.

The score was further enhanced by the immaculate conducting of Nicole Paiement, one of the founders of Opera Parallèle, one of San Francisco’s most innovative contemporary opera companies.

The singers were excellent. The performance run was divided between two casts, and the cast I saw – Pearl – was led by mezzo-soprano Cara Collins as the devil Brittomara, who takes on several roles during her earth-bound sojourn: one of the EMT, a mechanic, a bartender, a hairdresser. How fun is that?

Esther Tonea (left) as Diana and Cara Collins as Brittomara, a shape-shifting devil in the world premiere of “If I Were You” by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, presented by by the Merola Opera Program. Photo by Frank Wing.

Collins and Day made a solid vocal partnership as did Day and Esther Tonea, who sings Diana, a young woman that Fabian is enamored with. All the singers were formidable.

There were some oddities around the spirituality, suggested by the Hindu gods’ names, which led to calling up the devil, and the often-identified Christian Hallelujahs that dispelled and overcame them. Although the program notes go into some detail about the meaning of the Sanskrit chant. What if it had been reversed: If Hallelujah called up the devil and the Sanskrit dispelled her? In these religiously fraught days, perhaps more abstract terms would be less perturbing.

 – Jaime Robles