Eat ‘n Arts: What is Merola and How is it Unique?

Hanging out with artists is one of my favorite things to do. Yes, I love talking about music and comparing thoughts about this and that but what I really love is their contagious passion and their incredible drive to perform. I would compare it to sitting around the table with a group of ambitious entrepreneurs that want nothing more than to make a positive difference in the world through their start-up or creation. I always leave the conversation feeling so inspired and even more motivated to go after my own dream.

This week, I got to meet up at Patxi’s (one of my favorite pizzerias) with three amazing artists that are the current artists in residence at Merola. Scroll below to find out what it’s like to go through one of the most intensive opera programs in the world and get a peek at our delicious bites throughout our Eat ‘n Arts discussion…

In case you aren’t familiar with Merola, it is one of the best opera training programs in the world and it happens to be located right in the heart of San Francisco! From over eight-hundred young artists that audition, only about thirty are chosen to participate in this incredible summer program. It’s quite an accomplishment! To throw out another tech metaphor (because hey, we are in Silicon Valley), it’s like getting accepted into a giant incubator program, as a promising startup, that provides support and resources to transform it into a thriving business.

The average age for Merola artists is 22 – 35. So for all those thinking opera is for “old people”, I beg to differ! Cheyenne Cross (age 26) is a soprano from Michigan that has a background in musical theater, Xiaomeng Zhang (age 28) is a baritone from China that likes to cook and Marcus Shields (age 28) is an apprentice Stage Director that is always down for an afternoon at the skate park. What do they all have in common? Their love for opera and the amazing opportunity to study opera at Merola!

CHEYENNE: “From a young age I knew that I loved performing but I just didn’t know in what capacity that my personal talents would shine best. When my high school choir teacher suggested that I go see an opera, to see if I liked it, she was of course, absolutely right. I instantly fell in love with it as an art form. Everything was so grand and I knew I wanted to be a part of it!”

XIAOMENG: “Back home in China, my parents owned a Karaoke store when I was four years old. So, I would sing pop music every night in front of strangers and I fell in love with performing. After they closed the store, I didn’t sing much until I was in middle school. But soon I picked it up again and started performing in competitions. After formal training and being accepted into Shanghai’s music conservatory, I went to New York and performed in my first opera. It was then that I realized that this art form was something I wanted to consider professionally.”

MARCUS:  “I have a degree in singing and musicology but I was always more inclined towards the creative side of theater versus the interpretive side of it. When you’re young, stating ‘I want to be a director is not something that you typically say. You have to find a pathway into it. When I got into graduate school, I was fortunate to have many mentors that encouraged me towards it and gave me the opportunity to do it and I became addicted.”

After getting to know about each other’s backgrounds over a delicious Greek Salad, our Patxi’s server poured us a pinot noir to perfectly pair with their signature deep dish pizzas! I have to admit, my all-time favorite is their Spinach Pesto pizza that’s made with homemade tomato sauce, spinach and basil-garlic-Parmesan pesto. I get it every time!

Since these three artists started Merola in June, the program has already surpassed their expectations.

CHEYENNE: “We’ve been getting so much great advice and training from masters of this art form. What I love about Merola is that they truly want us to succeed. They teach us how to be ‘career musicians’. Being a professional opera singer is very competitive so we need to know how to be at the top of our game in all aspects of the business, including singing, team building, management, etc. It’s been so great to be in and around such a positive and fostering environment!”

MARCUS: “To get into this program, you have to have already achieved a level of ability. But once you’re at this high level of excellence, the question is, how do you distinguish yourself from the others? I think Merola is so great at helping us answer that. They take these singers, that are already at such a high level, and find help push them forward to advance and distinguish them from the rest, right down to the smallest little details.”

Going after any career in music is very challenging. Not only does it take a lot of hard work and determination, as well as years of practicing and performing, it takes a ton of grit. After taking the first few bites of our pizza, I learned that Xiaomeng had been through the Merola audition process two times before he was accepted into the program. Hey, the third time can be a charm!

XIAOMENG: “Although I was personally frustrated that I didn’t get in the first and second time, I learned something about myself each time after the auditions. Yes, it’s important to have a teacher, but it’s always a great advantage to receive feedback from others that aren’t as close to you. I also learned to not perform a piece that you feel like you can sing but you really can’t. Be patient with your voice and be willing to grow with it. I’m so glad that I did because this experience with Merola was definitely worth it.”

CHEYENNE: I have to agree with Xiaomeng. Make sure that you’re ready for a program like Merola before you audition. If you don’t understand what’s being asked of you in these masterclasses and training sessions, can be very overwhelming. There is a lot that is asked of us at Merola and if you’re not ready for the particular demands of this institute, you won’t get the most from it. I would also advise to try out for Merola after you’ve gone through other opera programs and you’re ready to go into opera as a musical career.

MARCUS: Theater is one of the hardest careers out there. I truly believe that. It really takes everything that you’ve got. But if doing what you love, that’s all that matters. I honestly would do it all over again (going back to school and studying) if it meant that I got to create something in real time, in some form, and in some capacity. So I really believe this it’s about listening to yourself and going after your dream and then do everything you can to make it a reality.

I think we can all relate and testify to these feelings and thoughts in one way or another, even if music isn’t your profession. To never give up, plug yourself into the best resources and follow your heart – for there, your treasure will be also. Make sure to check out Merola’s Grand Finale Concert that is on August 18th at the War Memorial Opera house! You’ll get the chance to see each one of the Merola artists perform and showcase what they have learned throughout the program.

Click to enter for a chance to WIN 2 tickets to Merola’s Grand Finale Concert! 

Pssssttt…!! Did you like all of our yummy photos of our bites? Patxi’s has a location in Hayes Valley that’s close to most all of San Francisco’s performing arts venue. It’s a great spot to dine before or even after a performance! Just make sure to allow enough time for them to bake that ever-so-tasty deep dish crust.

Click HERE to learn more about Merola!

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Photos by Trisha Leeper

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Parker Coomans

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