The youngest Met Opera Ambassador, Layla Felder, encourages accessibility in the arts
In second grade, when other seven-year-olds were watching “Scooby-Doo,” Layla Felder was watching the opera “La Bohème.” Layla is the youngest Met Opera Ambassador; she’s a senior at the Atlanta International School, and she has attended over one hundred opera houses around the world. Layla created the organization Kids Opera and Art Posse to encourage greater accessibility in the arts. This Friday, April 1, Terrence Blanchard’s musical setting of Charles Blow’s memoir “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” will premiere on PBS as part of “Great Performances at the Met.” Felder joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about the opera appreciation movement she’s spearheading and what to look forward to in this Friday’s broadcast.
How “Carmen” gave Felder the opera bug:
“I was watching Sesame Street one day, and Denise Graves came on an episode, and she was singing the “Habanera” from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ to Elmo. And after it was over, I turned to my mom, and I said, ‘Again, Mommy, again,’ but this is before you could rewind, on, like, live TV. And so my mom was wondering, like, ‘What is this?’ And so she pulled out the DVD for the Amadeus movie, and she flipped to one of the parts where they sing opera…. I just asked her to play that part over and over and over again.”
“For me, opera hits my heart in a way that no other art form does in the same way. There’s a feeling I get when I watch opera, especially during… some of the climactic ending scenes where it feels like my heart is breaking, but I’m also being filled up at the same time. It’s the weirdest feeling,” said Felder.
Putting a plan in action to spread the love:
“I was watching an opera production…. I don’t remember which opera it was, but I remember looking around and realizing that I was the only person under fifty or sixty in that theater. I was by no means a great mathematician, but I realized that by the time I got to that age, everyone else would be gone, and I would be the only one in the theater. And I realized that that was not sustainable for the Met. It really disturbed me,” Felder recalled. “I was talking about it with one of my aunts, and she suggested, ‘Oh, well, why don’t you start a club?’”
“The first year, I decided that we should all become members of the Met, so each of us wrote a little letter to the Metropolitan Opera and we decorated the envelope… and I wrote an eight-page letter writing about why I love the Met and every opera that I’d seen, and my reviews of it,” said Felder. “I think I was eight years old.”
“I don’t know who at the Met got it, but they showed it to the board, and they were like, ‘Oh my God, there are these kids in Atlanta, and they love this opera house,’” Felder recounted. “So the first year we went up to see an opera, they rolled out the red carpet for us. They took us backstage. They showed us where the sets are made, where the costumes are made, where the wigs are made. We got to meet the general manager. And ever since then, the Met has been so wonderful to our club. They have completely taken us under their wing.”
On PBS’ upcoming broadcast of “Fire Shut Up In My Bones:”
“The libretto is written by Casey Lemons, a wonderful Black librettist; composed by Terence Blanchard, who’s a Grammy-Award-winning trumpet player and composer, and he’s done film scores before, but this is his first opera – and ‘bravo’ for a first opera,” said Felder. “The opera is based on the memoir, which talks about Charles Blow’s experience being molested by an older cousin when he was younger, dealing with that trauma… first ignoring it or fighting it, or just trying to figure out how to keep living his life.”
“At twenty years old, his cousin is coming home to visit, and so it starts with Charles about to go home to kill his older cousin, with the intent, rather, to kill his older cousin. And then we go back in time, and we see Charles as a kid, what happened, and all of his decisions and how he lived his life leading up to that moment,” Felder elaborated. “At the end, he has the choice to either go forward with the murder or try to find a way to find happiness and live his life in a better way.”
PBS’ next episode of “Great Performances at the Met,” featuring the opera “Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” based on a memoir by Charles Blow, premieres Friday, April 1 at 9:00 PM. More information and a link to the stream are available here.
More information about Kids Opera and Art Posse can be found at https://kaopweb.com/.