Fresh. Young. Dynamic. Opera. That's the actual name of a brand-new company based in Burlington - only they prefer to just call it f y d o. Yep, lower-case and spaced out. A name that will confound traditionalists, not to mention typists. A name that to the ear sounds like a four-legged companion with a leash. So right from the start this five-piece ensemble is making a statement: An opera company can be edgy, accessible and playful. All of them are thirtysomething: old enough to have plenty of training and experience; young enough to have grown up addicted to "Friends."
In fact, they are all friends, which is one reason they want to play together. Soprano Shyla Nelson and mezzo-soprano Wendy Hoffman Farrell live in Burlington and Bolton, respectively. Both are well known locally for their work with such groups as the Vermont Mozart Festival and the Vermont Symphony Orchestra; Hoffman Farrell got her start with the Essex Children's Choir. Nelson met soprano Laura Smith at a vocal-arts institude in Italy two years ago; both train at the same studio in New York. Smith will soon move from Manhattan to Berlin to launch her European career. Tenor Peter Joahua Burroughs is from Williston and sang with Neslon in high school - he even took her to the prom. Burroughs now lives in Washington, D.C, and performs internationally. So does his partner, pianist and conductor Carlos Cesar Rodriguez - just last week he was performing in France with opera great Jessye Norman. Burroughs and Rodriguez are also affiliated with the Washington National Opera.
With all these urban and cross-continental connections, why base an opera company in Burlington, Vermont, where the best-known musical export has been a jam band, and opera a rare booking by the Lane Series? "Burlington is growing increasingly cosmopolitan; it's not as insular," suggests Nelson. "This company really speaks to that. Peter and I have deep ties to Vermont but also out to the world. Our company can bring that world to Burlington."
Burroughs is happy for more opportunities to come home, he says. "It's exciting to me to be bringing this back to the place that nurtured me, and to visit my family." He and Rodriguez have also begun an association with St. Michael's College.
Bob Hallowell, a retired Burlington businessman, has been advising Nelson on strategic planning and fundraising for f y d o. He thinks "because she wanted to" is a good enough reason to start an opera company in the Queen City, but adds, "Shyla's enthusiasm is absolutely infectious." The company will be well received, Hallowell predicts. "It's a wonderful story, friends working together. It's very professional, the real thing. You're not going to have $5 million sets like in New York, but the singers and musicians will be first-rate."
The public will have a chance to meet the members of f y d o Thursday at a gala benefit performance at Union Station in Burlington. Nelson says their program of "opera's greatest hits" - in arias, duets and ensemble pieces - will serve as an introduction to the genre itself. She's hoping that people who don't know, or think they don't like, opera will check it out. Especially young people. "We want to show that even opera singers know how to have fun," Nelson says with a grin. "We want to be a bridge between profound (older) opera fans and our generation. We want to shatter the myth of the diva."
She stresses that last word, so you can sense the quotation marks around it. Sometimes she prefers "divette." But Nelson says she means no disrespect to the great divas of yesteryear - and, after all, beautiful, best-selling younger singers such as Cecilia Bartoli have already broken the "Brunhilda" mold.
Nelson, who looks you straight in the eye without wavering when she talks, may herself be another reason f y d o is based in her home town. She's one determined Gen-Xer who embraces the "just do it" credo: If the established opera world doesn't provide enough - or sufficiently fun - opportunities to perform, it's time to take matters into your own hands.
Burroughs suggests that as "a product of public school" - Champlain Valley Union, in his case - "the biggest thing I learned was self-discipline, learning how to make things happen for yourself."
But this entrepreneurial spirit is not the only reason f y d o is a different kind of opera company. There's the subtle matter of sexual orientation.
In the 14 years since Nelson and her old friend Burroughs last performed together, both have "come out." Of course, they are by no means the world's first gay opera singers, but perhaps it is a hallmark of their generation that everything is out, so to speak, in the open. Nelson calls the company "metrosexual." "We've got 'Straight Eye for the Queer Diva," she says with a laugh, explaining that her divette pals took her bra shopping at Victoria's Secret this week. "They have to help me dress to look the part."
Is it a coincidence that f y d o's first full production - at the Elley-Long Music Center at St. Michael's College this September - is Handel's Alcina? The work, first performed in 1735, has an uber-feminist title character, a couple of cross-dressing women, and enough magical transformations to rival A Midsummer Night's Dream. In brief, Alcina (Smith) is a sorceress who lives on an island to which she lures new lovers at will - and dispenses with the tiresome ones by turning them into trees or some such. Morgana (Nelson) is her bad-girl sister. Ruggiero happens upon the island and falls under Alcina's spell. Sung by a castrato in Handel's time, Ruggiero is generally played by a woman today. In this case that role will fall to Hoffman Farrell. Ruggiero's girlfriend Bradamente comes looking for him, disguised in drag, whereupon Morgana falls in love with him/her... You get the idea.
Perhaps Burroughs will play one of the guys turned into something else. The remaining parts will be sung by guest artists whom Nelson has met at her New York vocal studio. For the past few years she's been working there with voice teacher Mark Schnaible. Currently in Israel, he declares via email that "Alcina is a perfect vehicle for their particular voices." Schaible adds that he doesn't know what f y d o has in mind in terms of future productions, but he's confident they'll choose well for "what is good for them to sing," he says. "After all, it is their passion that is igniting this endeavor."
Part of that passion is music itself. Alcina was chosen not because of its gender-bending roles, but because "It is one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the world," Nelson insists. "It's delicate, but has this passionate, earthy strain."
Because all the members of f y d o are so busy, for now they are planning just one full production a year - though that may change if all goes well, suggests Nelson. Next year, appropriately for the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, the group will stage his Cosi fan tutte. A classic work, to be sure, but f y d o promises a fresh, dynamic twist in all their productions.
Of course, no one stays young forever. But youth has as much to do with attitude as accumulated years. And the Gen-X members of f y d o aren't sweating it. They'd like to do for opera what the Kronos Quartet did for chamber music, Nelson says. "We love exquisitely rendered operatic works and are committed to creating a sleek, elegant aesthetic experience. We take our art seriously," she adds, "but we don't take ourselves too seriously."