4 January 2018

Gaetano Merola – conductor and impresario

Neapolitan who founded the San Francisco Opera

Gaetano Merola ran the San Francisco Opera Company for 30 years
Gaetano Merola ran the San Francisco Opera
Company for 30 years
Gaetano Merola, a musician from Naples who emigrated to the United States and ultimately founded the San Francisco Opera, was born on this day in 1881.

Merola directed the company and conducted many performances for 30 years from its opening night in September 1923 until his death in August 1953.

He literally died doing what he loved, collapsing in the orchestra pit while conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra during a concert at an outdoor amphitheatre in the city.

The son of a violinist at the Royal Court in Naples, Merola studied piano and conducting at the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella in Naples, graduating with honours at the age of 16.

Three years later he was invited to New York to work as assistant to Luigi Mancinelli, another Italian emigrant, born in Orvieto, who was a noted composer and cellist who was lead conductor of the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Demand for his services grew and he made regular guest appearances with companies across America and beyond, including a stint at Oscar Hammerstein’s London Opera House on the site of what is now the Peacock Theatre in Holborn.

Merola in action with the baton
He became a regular visitor to San Francisco with Fortune Gallo’s San Carlo Opera Company – named after the Naples opera house – and it was after becoming acquainted with many opera enthusiasts there that he identified the city as potentially one to rival New York as a centre that could attract the world’s top stars.

Merola noted how much the city was prepared to pay to have such illustrious companies as the Chicago Opera and the Scotti Company as well as the San Carlo to perform there and determined that he would be the man to give San Francisco its own company and make it as prestigious as any across the country.

Invited to make his home there by a philanthropic patron of the arts who set Merola and his wife up in an apartment, he immersed himself in the city’s large Italian community, where there was much enthusiasm about his ambition to bring the world's finest opera stars to the city.

When, in 1922, he hit upon the idea of a two-week season of open air concerts at Stanford Stadium, where he had noted during a football game how much the half-time marching band benefitted from the venue’s acoustics, they were all for it and there was no shortage of businessmen and wealthy professionals from the community willing to offer financial support, investing between $500 and $1,000 each in the venture.

Beniamino Gigli was one of the big names Merola was able to attract to perform in San Francisco
Beniamino Gigli was one of the big names Merola
was able to attract to perform in San Francisco
Merola signed up many stars of the day, including the Italian tenor Giovanni Martinelli, the American soprano Bianca Soraya and the Spanish baritone Vincente Ballester. The audiences were large and enthusiastic, rising from around 6,000 for the opening performance of I Pagliacci to 10,000 for Faust on the closing night.

Yet it made no money.  Indeed, once the costs were reckoned up, Merola had to tell his backers they were liable to a $19,000 shortfall.  He feared his dream was over until Giulio Stradi, a produce retailer who was one of the bigger investors, spoke up for the rest of the group by putting an arm round Merola’s shoulder and telling him the experience had been worth every penny.

They paid his dues in full and encouraged him to pursue another funding scheme, this time not relying on the largesse of a small number of wealthy patrons but by finding 750 individuals willing to pay $100 each, which included a $50 season ticket.

In the event, Merola attracted more than 2,400 investors and comfortably hit his funding target. His San Francisco Opera Company was born and made its debut at the city’s Civic Auditorium with Martinelli and soprano Queena Mario starring in Puccini’s La bohème.

The War Memorial Opera House opened in 1932
The War Memorial Opera House opened in 1932
More productions followed, with headline stars including Beniamino Gigli and Giuseppe de Luca, and by the end of the 1923-24 season he was able to pay his investors a dividend.

The San Francisco Opera was now established and its continued success in spite of the financial Depression led in 1931 to the construction of a permanent home, the grand Palladian-style War Memorial Opera House, designed by the architect Arthur Brown Jr.  It opened in October 1932 with a performance of Puccini’s Tosca, with the Italian soprano Claudia Muzio in the title role.

Merola began to wind down in the 1940s, bringing in Arturo Toscanini’s assistant Kurt Herbert Adler to serve as conductor, choral director and his deputy.  Merola, meanwhile, continued to use his contacts to attract the biggest names to San Francisco, including Tito Gobbi, Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco.

After Merola’s death, which came as he conducted an excerpt from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Sigmund Stern Grove amphitheatre, Adler established in his honour the Merola Opera Program to provide training for young singers.

The San Francisco Opera still thrives to this day.  In 2002, when it celebrated its 80th anniversary, the guests included 98-year-old Louise Dana – the former Louise Stradi, daughter of Giulio, who had helped Merola with the organisation of his first season.

The Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella
The Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella
Travel tip:

The Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella – often known as the Naples Conservatory – can be found a short distance from Piazza Dante in the centre of Naples. Along with the adjacent church, it is part of the former San Pietro a Majella monastic complex, built at the end of the 13th century. The conservatory houses an impressive library of manuscripts giving an insight into the life and work of many great composers who spent time there, including Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Cimarosa, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. The museum has a display of rare antique musical instruments.

The Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is the oldest continuously  active opera venue in the world
The Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is the oldest continuously
 active opera venue in the world 
Travel tip:

The Teatro di San Carlo, the opera house of Naples, was opened in 1737 after the Bourbon king Charles III of Naples commissioned its construction as a replacement for the small and somewhat dilapidated Teatro San Bartolomeo, which was no longer big enough to satisfy demand in the city after the popular composer Alessandro Scarlatti had decided to base himself there and was establishing Naples as a major centre for opera.  Although it was partly destroyed by a fire in 1816, the theatre was rebuilt on the orders of Charles III’s son, King Ferdinand IV, and is regarded as the oldest continuously active public venue for opera in the world, predating Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and Venice’s Fenice by several decades.


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