Layla J. Felder on being an opera buff at fourteen years old.
“Opera is everywhere for me. When I was still inside my mom, she would put headphones on her stomach and play Mozart to me through them because she heard it makes your kids smart… so eventually, apparently, I developed a favorite song. If she was ever afraid something would happen to me, she’d play it and I’d bang a foot or an elbow until it was over to let her know everything was okay. Then, once I came into the world, I continued to love Mozart and just classical music in general. And then one day I was watching Sesame Street, when I was two, and Denyce Graves made an appearance where she sang the ‘Habanera’ from Carmen and all I wanted was to hear it again and again. This was live TV so all my mom could do instead was pull the Amadeus movie she had handy so I could watch some opera clips from there, which I watched on repeat. So that’s when she realized that’s what I was into. And neither of my parents really liked opera before me. So my mom did some research and found out about the MET in HD broadcasts. The first full opera I ever saw was The Magic Flute in English, which I have seen SO many times now. Then came La Bohème, Carmen… those are the three that have been a really huge part of my life and it just kind of snowballed ever since then. I listen to it when I do homework, I listen to it in the morning, at night to help me go to sleep or to get me out of a bad mood.”
Layla is a stunning, brilliant, eloquent girl and meeting her was a breath of fresh air. It is hard to believe she is only fourteen. Whoever complains about millennials should meet her and realize that future generations are far from doomed. The future looks BRIGHT.
Layla is the definition of #BeMoreThanOneThing. This lady is busy and has contagious energy to spare.
“I’m a slight opera nerd. Just a little bit… (we both laugh). I play the violin, I love to write, I love to read, I love to draw, I love languages, I’m almost a black belt in karate, I do modeling and acting, I’m a standup comic and I also do improv. There a lot of things I want to do in life. I want to be on SNL one day, get an MFA in something, I want to study psychology, maybe forensic science, I want to be in movies, TV shows, work somewhere at the Met Opera… so I’m just gonna do as much as I can before I die and see what happens.”
How exactly does Layla see her involvement with opera evolve in the future?
“I can’t sing to save my life, I don’t want to be on stage. I just want to make opera relevant to my generation so it can continue to grow and flourish.”
And she has already been doing a lot on that end, with much success.
“I started a club called “Kids Opera & Arts Posse’ when I was in third grade and I noticed that the demographics of the audience in the opera house was clearly not sustainable. I thought that had to change because I didn’t want to be the only one left in the theater once that generation was gone.”
Today the club does local art excursions in Atlanta, goes to the MET in HD broadcasts and travels to The Metropolitan Opera twice a year to see live performances at the opera house. The trips to the MET also include some sort of backstage experience. Layla and her friends have visited most departments by now. How brilliant is that?
“We went to archives last year, which was SO COOL. We got to see Risë Stevens’ Rosenkavalier rose and it STILL had perfume on it. It was like a time walk. It still had the scent from 1930. It was NUTS. I also tried Leontyne Price’s wig from Antony and Cleopratra from the opening of the new MET in 1966, and so many other things. They actually gave me a 1977 Opera News Magazine, the one with the Maria Callas obituary and I literally started crying because they let me keep it. I was a mess. It is one of my most prized possessions.”
Through her club Layla has connected with kids and adults alike and has introduced many new people to opera.
“I know people who had sworn they’d never go back to the opera and that it wasn’t for them. Actually, they come with me and they have a good time! I think that if more people try to introduce opera to others, keeping in mind what would be appropriate for newcomers and such, I think things could go uphill. Also, provided that opera houses also try to bring opera to schools and educate kids about it so that they’ll grow up with a knowledge of it. I think the more people start to do that and it becomes part of their life, then it could definitely take a turn for the better.”
But it doesn’t end there, and this is the best part. Layla fights for a big cause, which is to get more people interested in opera, and at a young age she understands that this starts through education. This is why she puts all her efforts into fundraising for the MET Opera’s Education program.
“Every summer my club does a walk called the ‘Ring Cycle Endurance Walk’, usually a 5K. We also send out handwritten letters to people, which I personally decorate one by one (this year’s letter was ten pages long) to fundraise for the MET Opera in HD Live in Schools Program. So far we’ve raised over $28000. This helps fund screening in schools, fieldtrips to the movie theater or to the opera house to see the show live.”
Being part of the generation that is growing up with operas in HD, I thought it would be interesting to hear Layla’s opinion on both experiences, the opera house versus the movie theater.
“When you go see the HD, it’s much more relaxed and what is great is that it doesn’t just show you the opera, it also shows you the work that goes behind the opera. During the intermissions they’ll have interviews with the singers, go to rehearsals to show sneak peeks of other operas, show the different production departments…so you are closer to it in a way because you are getting all of the behind the scenes while the show is happening. You get to see all the different angles so it is a much more 360 approach ( 😉 ). But then, coming to the MET in person… you just… I don’t know how it is for other people, but the minute we pull up to the curve and step on Lincoln Center Plaza, I can just feel the energy, the years and years of the greats walking up these steps of the opera house, I feel the majesty of it all, it brings a huge smile to my face every single time. It’s like a second home to me. I walk inside and the red velvet, the gold, the ivory… it’s so beautiful and the theater is so big. That’s the real moment of awe, when the curtain comes up and you see the singers. I still don’t understand how they can fill the house when they are so small in comparison to the space. The whole thing is just mind-blowing. I don’t know which experience I like better, but they are both amazing!”
Spending time with Layla was very inspiring. After our chat we headed to the MET Opera Shop where her mom, Alicia, always has a hard time putting her foot down. “How do you say no when all she wants are books and music and going to the opera?!” It was adorable to witness. Layla talks about opera stars like I used to talk about the Spice Girls. So there you go. Progress.
Layla knows a lot about opera, but mostly she has this deep love and passion for it. This is the driving force behind this business. The unquestionable love and devotion for the artform needs to be there for all of it to happen and prevail. How do we plant those seeds? By giving young girls like Layla all of our time, support and attention.
Want to follow Layla’s adventures? Follow her on social media at @laylajfelder (fashion) & @kaopweb (opera & art). Layla is so fun, cool and BUSY! Her Instagram accounts give me life. Layla has BIG projects coming up in film, fashion and opera. Keep your eyes open… because the future is closer than you think.
[ Photos by Eugenia Forteza / 360 of Opera ]