GAETANO MEROLA

1879-1953

Impresario and conductor, Gaetano Merola was an urbane, courtly character, picaresque to some, who ran a comfortable ship as founder and general director of the San Francisco Opera 1923-53 and kept it steaming through financial thick and thin, peace and war. It was never fashionable with this pin-striped Neapolitan or his Viennese conducting successor Kurt Herbert Adler to admit in polite circles that an effective intendant could be a very good conductor as well. But while it’s true that discipline among Merola’s players in regular opera performances stuffed into a crowded schedule and the quickly-rehearsed Sunday evening radio concerts he generally conducted could be lax at times — not, that is, on the Fritz Reiner level of ever-crisp orchestral housekeeping, or the Mittel Europa Adler level either — the fact remains Merola was an extremely sensitive and versatile maestro, insufficiently known for in his San Francisco years he rarely conducted elsewhere except a little in Mexico City. Don’t forget that he presided – as administrator and conductor too – over the American premiere of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. Not surprisingly for such a dapper fellow, he loved Ravel’s music and he conducted L’Heure Espagnole a few seasons later when the chance presented itself to produce this gem.

The great throbbing leap in the orchestra at the beginning of the title tenor’s first act aria in an Andrea Chénier performance with Beniamino Gigli from 10-7-38 is a remarkable effect I’ve never heard elsewhere.

In a Carmen concert from 1945 his reaction to the text is acute, he gives the music passion, he knows how soulful and vibrant is the Micaela-José duet in the first act, he hears that fetching weave of strings in the accompaniment to José’s flower song. Exquisite and loving is his conducting of excerpts from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette in ’46 and ’51. The Semiramide oveture from a concert 10-23-49 is effervescent, an absolute gem. And accompanying Kirsten Flagstad in Wagner concerts in the same era he rose to the occasion with luminously lyrical conducting, producing magnificent waves of fate to crash through the orchestra in Isolde’s Liebestod.

And from the Liebestod he’d return to his crowded desk of administrative paperwork. One singer recalls: “He was such a gentleman I didn’t feel I needed a contract.” Tantrum was a word Merola didn’t seem to know, and although he could be irritated – after a long conversation with an admirer he once said: “In the hands of a woman a telephone is a terrible instrument!” – his impatience rarely turned to rage. Actually, some of his most characteristic actions were silent ones. He had a way of walking out from the wings at a rehearsal, slowly taking out his watch, putting it away, and walking off without a word. No one needed to be told that overtime was creeping up. Merola was one of those lucky conductors who died conducting – and it was on the word “to die” too. Perhaps he planned it that way.