MEROLA OPERA’S GRAND FINALE – Meet Daniel Curran and Mark Diamond

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Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

The Grand Finale of the 2011 Merola Oper Program takes place this Saturday, August 20th, 7:30 pm at the War Memorial Opera House. Conductor Johannes Debus will lead members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra with staging by Merola Apprentice Stage Director Ragnar Conde. The concert will feature solos, duets, and various ensembles from works by Adams, Bizet, Donizetti, Handel, Massenet, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and more. Earlier this month the twenty members of the Merola Opera Program – the Merolini – were divided into separate casts, each doing two performances of Rossini’s Barber of Seville at the Herbst Theatre. The final presentation on Sunday, August 7th, featured sterling performances by baritone Mark Diamond as “Figaro” and tenor Daniel Curran as “Almaviva”. It was my privilege to meet with these future stars of the operatic world and ask them about their Merola experience and plans for the future.
Click here for ticket information: MEROLA GRAND FINALE

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MARK DIAMOND — As “Figaro”
Production photos by Kristen Loken

Sean: What did you sing for your audition to the Merola Opera Program?

Mark: I did my audition in Chicago. I don’t remember the requirement specifically, but I do remember the first thing I sang was the “Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville. I knew they were doing the opera and I wanted to be considered for Figaro. They do two rounds: a semi-final and a final round. I went in and sang the Largo. They said, “OK, great. We’ve heard what we needed to hear.” Then they did a callback for me, which happened the next day. They immediately had me sing the Hamlet “Ò vin dissipe la tristesse”, because they said I looked like a Hamlet but wanted to hear it. I also sang Billy Budd “Look! Through the port”. Finally, because they were video recording this day, they asked me to sing a little bit of the Largo and also coached me a bit. I think the only thing I didn’t sing that day was the “Pierrot’s Tanzlied” by Korngold. Other than that, I got to sing everything on my list.

Sean: Good for you! So, you would have been just as prepared that day to sing the Hamlet.

Mark: Yes, I was prepared to sing all five of my arias the first day. That’s how most auditions go for us. We bring in the set list and they choose from that.

Sean: Did you feel that every one of your arias would have accomplished the same thing? That being, to get you to the callback. In other words – here’s who I am as a baritone.

Mark: Yes. I think all of my pieces represent me well. However, I knew that Largo would probably spark a little bit more because they were looking for someone to sing that specific role. I wanted to show them I was a good candidate for it.

Sean: I was not aware that Merola announced their productions in advance.

Mark: They release the season right after we leave here. Most programs do that. That’s one good way to find out what programs you want to audition for. It was one of the reasons I auditioned for Merola – because the repertoire was a perfect choice for me.

Sean: What repertoire were you prepared to sing, Daniel?

Daniel: Mine was very interesting. I went in without any Rossini on my list. I’d never done any Rossini in my life.

Sean: How did that happen?

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DANIEL CURRAN – As “Almaviva”

Daniel: That’s exactly what I was asked at the audition! It just never happened. I was singing things like “Tamino” and “Albert Herring”. I opened with Faust’s “Salut! demeure chaste et pure” – which is a role I won’t sing for a long time, but the aria itself is fine for my voice. They said, “You know we’re doing Rossini next year, right?” And I said, “Yeah….” And they’re, like, “Do you have, maybe, ‘Ecco ridente’ ?” And I said that I hadn’t really looked at it for a long time. Because, at that point in time, coloraturas terrified me. “OK, let’s hear your ‘Ah! mes amis’ [La Fille du Regiment].” So, I sang that. And then they asked if I could learn a little bit of Ecco ridente if I were to get a callback. “Yes, I can!” So, in two days I brushed-up the aria and they called me back. They said, “Fantastic! This will be good.” And Sheri Greenawald says, “How is it you’ve never done any of this in your life?” I don’t know. And then I was terrified, because as soon as I bought the score I thought – I will never learn this music on time. But, it came off really well and it was exciting to sing with all these people who were amazing.

Sean: How did you prepare the aria during those two days? Did you work with a coach? Were you by yourself?

Daniel: Luckily, I was finishing my last year at Juilliard, so I used everything at my disposal. Normally, to learn an aria in two days is crazy. But I had a very good teacher there, Dr. Robert C. White Jr., and ran it with the Italian diction coach, Corradina Caporello. I did as much as possible in those two days, without cutting sleep, to prepare the aria. And it wasn’t perfect. But, obviously, they got the gist of what they needed to hear and helped shape me a lot as well.

Sean: So, there’s the pressure of having to learn something new – in a style to which you aren’t accustomed – specifically, something that is very florid. What kind of vocal exercises do you do to get yourself ready to get ready?

Daniel: I sing a lot of scales. I generally warm them up very slowly and I typically try to make them clean and faster than what is actually required. Because if you can sing it quicker than what is written, then the speed won’t be an issue. I do a lot of chromaticism. I usually only do about twenty minutes because my voice warms-up pretty quickly. The aria wasn’t completely foreign to me. I had dabbled with it a couple of years before I went into Juilliard. You just go into it and hope for the best. You get a lot of external ears to give their input – which is what happened.

Sean: What college did you attend prior to being in the graduate program at Juilliard?

Daniel: I did my undergraduate work at Chapman University in southern California. I’m from Blackfoot, Idaho – a middle-of-nowhere town. My choir teacher in high school said I should look into this school because it was very good vocally. It was one of the three schools I had auditioned for and then became the one I chose.

Sean: So, at that time, you had it in your head that your life might be about opera?

Daniel: Well, in high school it’s all choir stuff and there’s musical theatre influence as well. I love Blackfoot, but culturally – it’s not effected much. So, I didn’t know I was going into opera really. I played French horn for nine years.

Sean: That accounts for the breath control.

Daniel: Yeah, in my mind, I was planning on being a studio horn player. I wanted to play for film music and such and thought that would be really great. It wasn’t until high school that singing started becoming a sharing presence with Band, back and forth. Then in high school, at a competition where I sang, they said, “You don’t know this yet, but this is going to pay for your college education.” OK, whatever. And it did. I ended up playing horn for a couple of years in college – second horn in symphony orchestra – but it gradually started consuming my life. And I love it a lot. I miss instrumental music. I think it’s part of the reason I’m so drawn to opera. Who doesn’t love the orchestration of Puccini or Wagner? Orchestration is an entire Art to me.

Sean: So, by the time you are out of Chapman you know that you want to go into opera.

Daniel: Yes, I knew very strongly that I wanted to be in opera.

Sean: Opera is a whole life’s commitment. And it can sure cut into a boy’s social life – hugely. Now you’re in San Francisco – and it’s Allergy Season. It has hit me like never before. For the first time in my life I’m taking Claritin. How about you, Mark? Have you been affected by it?

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Rosina (Renee Rapier), Count Almaviva (Daniel Curran), Basilio (Peixin Chen),
Figaro (Mark Diamond) and Dr. Bartolo (John Maynard)

Mark: I’ve spent the last five years around Savannah and, specifically, the last two years in Savannah – during the worst pollen count in American history. So coming here is really a relief for me.

Sean: When it does hit you, how do you handle it?

Mark: Water, water, water. I drink a lot of water. There’s not much else you can do. I will take a Claritin occasionally, especially at night if I’m getting stuffed-up because it helps me sleep.

Daniel: But it’s very drying.

Mark: It does dry you out. You wake up very dry. If I were to take it during the day I’d be concerned that I would dry out on stage. And that is one of my nervous ticks – I get a little bit of dry mouth. So if I added something to that, it would probably be miserable. For me, the way to combat allergies during the day is to drink a lot of water and flush-out the system.

Sean: What’s happening for you now that the Merola season is drawing to end?

Mark: It’s different for everyone – we have two different situations right here. I’m going into the Houston Grand Opera Studio Program. There are other people in the Merola Program who have future commitments for a young artists program or going over to Germany and working in a Fest Contract, things like that. But the majority of us don’t know. Like Daniel here – he doesn’t know what he’s doing next year.

Daniel: No future here!

Sean: “Just another tenor!”

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DANIEL CURRAN

Mark: But it’s kind of a good position to be in as well. Now he’s open and available for the Adler Fellowship which is obviously something that a lot of people here really want. It’s one of the best programs in the country – and really in the world as far as young artists programs.

Sean: How long ago did you know you’d be going to Houston?

Mark: I found out in February. I auditioned for Merola in November and Houston in December. The Houston program does a competiton, whereas the Adler Fellowship does Merola. I went to the Houston competition in the beginning of February. It’s a week-long competition where you do coachings and lessons and several different auditions along the way. I ended up winning that competition – the Eleanor McCollum Competition with Houston Grand Opera. They offered me a spot in the studio for next year. It’s a year-long program. I will go straight there after this and work for nine months. Then we have the summer off and then work for another nine months. You do coachings every week, lessons, language development, you get small roles on the main stage. So, very much like the Adler. I’ll be covering some larger roles, like Figaro in The Barber of Seville, Tarquinius in The Rape of Lucretia, and Rodrigue in Don Carlos – the full five act French version.

Sean: Wow! That’s worth going to Houston for!

Mark: Absolutely. I must say, it was very tempting to think about staying for the Adler. But it comes down to “a bird in one hand”. They are both comparably fantastic programs.

Sean: So, Daniel – what are you going to do?

Daniel: I would really like to get an Adler position. I live here now. My fiancée and I moved from New York City after my program. Not only would it be great to get the training it offers, but it would be very advantageous because I live here now. Other than that, I’ll probably do what everybody else does. You go to New York during audition season for a couple of weeks. The Portland Artists Studio Program contacted me and wants me to sing for them, so I plan on doing that. I’ve a possible gig with Gotham Chamber Opera in a couple of years. So, it’s not completely barren for me. I’ve also made a lot of great connections here. César Ulloa, the voice teacher here, is phenomenal and has offered to help in many ways. So, I’m not too worried about it. It’s good to know that you have people who support you and offer their connections to you.

Sean: What’s your dream role? What keeps you motivated?

Daniel: I actually love Almaviva. That’s funny, because I was terrified I would not be able to do it – all that coloratura. But it was a lot of fun and, especially now, it’s important for me to be a good actor. Making an audience laugh or cry is wonderful for me.

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Daniel Curran (Almaviva) and John Maynard (Bartolo)

Sean: How old are you now?

Daniel: I’m twenty-five.

Sean: That’s young, but here you are in this really advantageous position. So, you’re not like every other tenor on the block. Let’s go back to the roles. Whatever happens, what would be that one role that would keep you going?

Daniel: I really love Rodolfo in La Boheme. I love that opera. I can go and watch it performed terribly and still cry. But there’s something about it, something about the aria “Che gelida manina”, all the music, all the ambiance. It’s a beautiful opera. Who knows? Maybe in twenty years I’ll be able to sing it. But, for right now – in the American houses anyway – more of what I have just performed will be along the lines of what happens. I love singing Tamino [Magic Flute] – that’s probably a close second. But I think Almaviva will be up there. Another role I really love and have done twice now is Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi. It’s a thankless role as a tenor, but it’s very-very fun.

Sean: The advantage to roles like Rinuccio is that we get to meet you even though we may have come to see somebody else – or just the opera itself – and there you are.

Daniel: Exactly. That’s exciting because it pushes my bounds technically right now and really shows people that maybe my voice is leaning in a certain direction and gives me another angle. So, that kind of repertoire is very exciting. I’ve also said I’d be happy singing Lieder for the rest of my life.

Sean: Do you have a vocal hero?

Daniel: Yes. Hands down – Fritz Wunderlich.

Sean: Absolutely hands down!

Daniel: Also Nicolai Gedda, Alfredo Kraus. I love Pavarotti – some people go back and forth – but when it comes to the Italian vowel, I don’t think you can get better. Most of the tenors I listen to are dead.

Mark: My vocal hero is Leonard Warren. I’m obsessed with Leonard Warren.

Sean: How did you become familiar with him?

Mark: You were talking about the dream roles. It’s his roles – those that are a little out of my reach right now. He just gives these epic portrayals. Things like Tonio [Pagliacci] and the huge Verdi roles. Just amazing – the power behind his voice. Leonard Warren and Robert Merrill. I have this famous recording of the two of them doing Pagliacci. I would have a hard time picking one out of the two of them of who I like more. One still living that I adore is Thomas Allen. For most of the repertoire that I do – when it’s time for me to go the Listening Room – that’s who I look for. Because he had so many recordings, at such a high quality – especially for art song. Allen did a lot of the art songs I do and I love listening to his portrayals.

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Rosina (Renee Rapier), Count Almaviva (Daniel Curran), Basilio (Peixin Chen),
Figaro (Mark Diamond) and Dr. Bartolo (John Maynard)

Sean: In the vocal fach – the vocal category thing – where do you put yourself?

Mark: A full lyric baritone. Repertoire-wise, Figaro is perfect for me right now. It sits right in my “wheelhouse”. I sing a lot of high repertoire. I would say that – right now – the role of Rodrigue, which I’m doing next year, is a little bit of a stretch for me. I think it’s in my future for sure. But the baritone roles by Britten – like Tarquinius, Sid [Albert Herring], and Billy Budd – are perfect for me.

Sean: How about in the French repertoire?

Mark: I don’t have a lot of availability in French opera right now because a lot of it is very heroic. A Valentin [Faust] is definitely accessible. But Hamlet – which I can sing the arias from – is fine. I don’t feel like singing all five of those arias and the entire role in one night. One day, hopefully, I’ll work into it.

Sean: Do you know the voice of Gerard Souzay?

Mark: I do know Souzay and I am a fan. I have several recordings of his French art song, which is exquisitely beautiful. It’s a very special voice. I definitely prefer him – just like the great German baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – in art song, as opposed to opera.

Sean: At this point, would there be anything at all that would lure you away from opera?

Mark: Not at this point. I think there’s a time in most singers’ careers you realize that this is what makes you tick – this is why we’re here. It would be very hard for me to imagine living without singing – in some fashion. If it came to – “You can’t sing anymore” – I would be, like, “Then what do I do?” Once you figure it out, you find this thing you are so in love with. I found that I could sing opera pretty well. And now, it’s so engrained in me, I couldn’t go on without it.

Daniel: I’m right up there with Mark. Moreso, I’m addicted to music. I love jazz, I listen to “oldies”. I like it all. Opera has become the way I communicate through music. This is my staple. This is how I do it. But I love symphonic music and, like I said, I miss playing the horn. When people ask me, “Do you love singing?” – I respond that I do love singing, but more importantly, I love music. Without loving music, I couldn’t sing. Someday I’ll get to a point where I probably won’t be able to sing anymore, but then I can teach it. Unless I can sing till 100. And that would be phenomenal. Because I have awesome technique? But, more importantly, if I couldn’t play the piano or teach someone how to do it I would go insane. Because, like Mark says, that’s the way I tick. It’s a hard thing for people to understand a lot of the time — Musicians.

Sean: One last question. Physical work-outs.

Daniel: Mark, take it away!

Mark: I work-out regularly. I actually haven’t worked-out nearly as much this summer just because I am away from my home and the transportation-thing is a little harder here since I don’t have my own car. I know it’s effected me in a couple of ways. I’ve always played sports – never football or anything that made me huge – but I’ve always played soccer. I played ultimate frisbee competitively in college. In high school, I wrestled in a lighter weight class and also did track. Obviously, anatomy is a big part of our voices. I think that’s what makes my voice sound the way it does. So, to keep working-out is a good thing for me. Some people, I’ve heard, keep working-out a lot and bulking-up and then there vocal apparatus is strained by that and then can’t perform as well. When you’re doing any work-out – any type of free weight, running, using resistance weights – the most important thing is to keep breathing and not clench down. I like to work-out with singers. To have a singer there means that they’ll watch your breathing and say, “OK, loosen-up! Breathe-breathe-breathe!” For example, when doing a bench press, the natural thing is to go down and then strain in your throat to push up. Instead, you should go down and breathe out when you’re going up and never clenching. So, yes, it can be dangerous. But, it’s a part of my lifestyle as well. To be a lyric baritone in today’s world you have to be able to take your shirt off. Which is kind-of frustrating.

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NATHAN GUNN and ROD GILFRY. Billy Budd

Sean: Like Nathan Gunn. Who is extremely frustrating.

Mark: And Rod Gilfry. A lot of baritones these days. So, you can work-out, you just have to be safe about it.

Sean: Have you joined a gym since you’ve been here in San Francisco?

Mark: No. I’m coming from the Richmond district and I’m on a bus everyday and, with walking, it takes me about 45 minutes to get to the opera house.

Sean: Are you running?

Mark: I’m not running as I normally do just because I’ve been so busy this summer. All I’ve been able to do is push-ups and sit-ups at night. Just to maintain.

Daniel: As I eat my potato chips, I’ll admit I need to exercise more. During summer programs, it’s always difficult to answer this question because I feel like it’s always a pattern of – “OK, Flippers is close by. Let’s go get a burger!” Something like that. And cheap. However, when I’m with my financée, she makes me eat better. I do walk a lot. I try to walk back and forth from the opera house as much as possible.

Sean: Have you tried some of our hills?

Daniel: Yes, it’s a lot different than Manhattan.

Mark: You can’t go anywhere without running into a hill.

Daniel: Exactly! But is walking the best thing? Could I run? Yes. Could I do weights? Yes. I could do all these things – and I want to. But, I mean, you’re talking to the person who did Marching Band in high school so I wouldn’t have to do P.E.

[Much laughter.]

Daniel: But Marching Band is a strength-building exercise, I promise you. But I do try to eat pretty well and I’ve always stayed slender.

Sean: Yeah? Well, that’ll change.

Daniel: It’s slowing down, trust me.

Sean: I was 25 when I hit 130 pounds. Much later on, when I did a tour, I discovered that I don’t travel well. I was fighting the air conditioning on planes, the air conditioning in the cab to the air conditioned hotel. By the time I got into the room I sounded like Paul Robeson. I knew then that traveling would always be a challenge.

Mark: Travel is a big change from your ordinary routine. You find the things that you do in your ordinary life to get you back into your zone – so that you can perform at your top level one hundred percent. For me, it’s working-out a little bit everyday or a full breakfast or maybe two cups of coffee. It’s important to find those things because we travel so much. Especially when you go to a place like Colorado or Santa Fe. Things like walking a lot will get you accustomed to the altitude, the air, the allergens, the humidity. Being from Georgia and moving to Houston – thank goodness I’m used to the humidity. But if you come from a humid place and then go to Colorado where there’s zero humidity – it can really mess with your system.

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MARK DIAMOND and DANIEL CURRAN
Il Barbiere di Siviglia – Merola Opera Program, 2011
Production photos by Kristen Loken

Mark Diamond and Daniel Curran will be featured in the following scenes at the Grand Finale which begins at 7:30 pm in the War Memorial Opera House:

BIZET: “Au fond du temple saint” — Les pêcheurs de perles
Zurga – Mark Diamond
Nadir – Scott Quinn

MASSENET: “Suis-je gentille ainsi? Je marche sur tous les chemins” — Manon
Manon – Elizabeth Zharoff
Chorus – Cooper Nolan, Scott Quinn, Mark Diamond, Joo Wan Kang

HANDEL: “Andiam, fidi, al consiglio…Invida sorte avara” — Ariodante
Odoardo – Daniel Curran
Il Rè – Philippe Sly
Harpsichord – Robert Mollicone

DONIZETTI: “Tornami a dir che m’ami” – Don Pasquale
Ernesto – Daniel Curran
Norina – Xi Wang

Click here for ticket information: MEROLA GRAND FINALE

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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