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Educational Initiative: an Interview with Rebekah Diaz-Fandrei

Rebekah Diaz-Fandrei is widely known as South Florida’s Opera Mom. Married to baritone Graham Fandrei, director of Magic City Opera, she is the mother of two young sons. She studied with Mimi Lerner at Carnegie-Mellon University and Maitland Peters at the Manhattan School of Music; her resume includes performances of L’Italiana in Algeri, The Rape of Lucretia, Hansel ünd Gretel, West Side Story, and South Pacific.

But the real reason for the sobriquet “Opera Mom” is that Rebekah works tirelessly to bring opera to young audiences in South Florida. As the director of education and community engagement at Florida Grand Opera, she introduces thousands of school children to tab versions of the opera classics each year. Currently, she is in the middle of overseeing the second year of her brainchild, the Youth Artist Learning Academy (YALA), an intensive boot camp for young opera lovers produced during the month of June by Florida Grand Opera. This year, nineteen South Florida teens are enhancing their knowledge of their favorite art form via classes in singing, dancing, acting, opera history, costuming, stagecraft, and lighting.

YALA culminates with a special concert in which students perform scenes from classic operas and musicals. The concert takes place at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, June 30, at FGO’s Balfe Center, 8390 Northwest 25 Street, in Doral. General admission is $5.00; go to www.fgo.org.

BK: Tell me how the Youth Artist Learning Academy (YALA) got its beginnings at Florida Grand Opera.

RD-F: It was the kind of thing that Susan Danis [General Director and CEO of Florida Grand Opera] had always wanted to do. It just never materialized. So when I came to Susan about having a camp here, she said, “Do it.” I had been doing summer camps for kids for years, and I put the program together quickly. The biggest basis was that the kids would only work with true professionals. We had the idea, and two months later we launched it, and a month later we started the camp. We had no press that went out for it. I was just calling every kid I knew and saying, “Come to camp.” We had no budget to pay anybody anything. We did have some master class teachers come in, and those were all favors. We did it. And this year, it’s been way better and we have more funding. It’s evolving into a fantastic program.

BK: When you were a kid, did you participate in a program like this?

RD-F: No. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, so I could never afford to go to that kind of thing. When I was in grad school, I worked for the Manhattan School of Music program. I love my alma mater, but it was not this intense and not this specified. In most of the programs I’ve seen they sort of say, “Let’s build the program, let’s attract the kids there; whoever rises to the top, we’ll feature them and everybody else can be supporting characters, and we’ll put on a great big show, and that’s the most important thing.” Getting the training and the specialized focus per kid is something I’ve seen lacking. Our goal here is to give every kid that specialized time and focus to give them what they need. If certain kids are having a hard time, what can we change to make this better for them to put on a good show?

BK: How bad is the arts education system in public schools in South Florida?

RD-F: Recently, we have a new district supervisor of performing arts at Miami-Dade County schools, Bill Reaney. I’ve never seen anyone do more than he does to fix the situation. He takes it very personally. He’s been in the job for maybe two years. Prior to him, it was a disaster. But Bill is never not on the road going to a different school, trying to get them musical instruments or funding for their choral program, or going to their concerts. If you don’t have a teacher in the school who will push it, then there’s no music program.

BK: I am assuming that a lot of the kids enrolled in YALA don’t perhaps fit in at their regular schools.

RD-F: I think that a good eighty to ninety percent of these kids don’t fit in. We do have a chunk of kids from New World School of the Arts, and that is a very supportive atmosphere, but even within that dichotomy, there is still the posturing of who is at what level. A lot of these kids have said to me, “At my school I’m weird, or I can’t be myself because everyone thinks I’m strange.” But it’s so good to see the kids here making new friendships and feeling like they’re cool. I go into lunch and make the kids sit with other people. I say, “O.K, everybody—make new friends, but keep the old. You have to sit with somebody else today.” We have one young girl who is thirteen. We don’t normally let them in that young, but her mother made a very good case for her needing that maturity to get to the next level. Sweet kid. Very bright. We let her in and she’s having a little bit of a hard time, but we matched her up with one of our kids who was here last year. It’s so nice to see these two girls, who would never know each other, working on the same piece of music. After lunch, they go in a practice room and work together. It’s a natural partnership.

BK: Has it happened that somebody sank instead of swimming?

RD-F: We have an insanely talented group this year. They’re smart, too, and pick up things very quickly. Last year we had one young lady who was very sweet but just couldn’t get it together. In the final show that we always do at the end of the camp, her scene fell apart. We talked about how that happens when you’re onstage sometimes. Things fall apart. That’s one of the things that makes live theater awesome: sometimes things don’t work out. I tell them not to tear their friends down, because there are enough people out there in the world who will try to do that to you. Everybody was supportive of this girl when she messed up; they were all clapping for her like crazy.

As of today, the kids have maybe had twenty hours of rehearsal, give or take, over the past two weeks. I heard a rehearsal for The Magic Flute and they were doing it a cappella in solfège. How do these teenagers sing Magic Flute in solfège and make it perfect? Those are the moments that blow me away. I get very emotional when I see how quickly they can do it so quickly, with such artistry.

BK: What’s the most moving thing that one of the kids said to you having been through the whole process?

RD-F: I think about one girl who came last year. She had never had a lot of experience with opera. She was a musical theater kid. She was a low-income kid. She had a GoFundMe campaign. She just worked so hard. She was always practicing, always studying. She came back this year. Her voice has grown incredibly. She told me that she felt she belonged, and that she was allowed to grow. It didn’t feel any longer like her mother was poor, and that she didn’t fit in. She said, “It felt like I was allowed to be myself, and no one was on me about it.”

Conversely, there was a young lady who came back, too. She’s an activist in training. She doesn’t fit in. But she said, “This isn’t like an opera house. It’s like an opera home.” That means almost more to me than the kids progressing musically—that they found a place where they felt they belonged. This is life. This is cool.

BK: How do you feel about the term “opera nerd”?

RD-F: Well, it’s weird, because “nerd” doesn’t mean “nerd” anymore. It’s cool to be a nerd now. “Opera nerd” was a bad term when I was younger. But now it’s cool to be nerdy. Cool to be a science nerd, cool to be a music nerd.

BK: Because it’s synonymous with the pursuit of something, with acquiring expertise.

RD-F: “Nerd” is the new “aficionado.” And the kids wear it with pride now.

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1 Comment

  1. Love this example of the power of music to transform lives and bring us closer together. Rebekah Diaz-Fandrei is a wonder!

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