Giggling and chattering, the hundreds of bright-eyed teens flooding into the Adrienne Arsht Center on Friday night, decked out in their high-heeled and sleek-shirted best, looked like they were headed to a pop concert. Instead, they were there for a show most people might assume would appeal to their grandparents — the Florida Grand Opera’s dress rehearsal of Bellini’s Norma, a grand tragedy of betrayal, revenge, doomed love and arias that soar to heights Adele could only dream about.
Noelia Luna, 15, and her friends Michelle Izquierdo, 17, and Astrid Soto, 18, in the chorus program at Robert Morgan Educational Center in South Miami Heights, were bubbling with excitement.
"I just expected a bunch of sopranos screaming," said Noelia, explaining why her previous visit to a Florida Grand Opera rehearsal brought her back a second time. "But it was phenomenally beautiful. I was really transported. I felt like I was in the story. I didn’t expect that."
FGO is trying to surprise more teens like Noelia, part of a larger effort to lure younger audiences and squelch opera’s elitist reputation. Although the troupe has hosted free dress rehearsals for several decades, it began focusing on schoolchildren four years ago, after an anonymous donor began paying for school buses to transport them. The program has become so successful that FGO is seeking more schools to participate, so the event can expand to two nights.
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A force behind that success is Rebekah Diaz-Fandrei, FGO’s new director of education and community programming, an enthusiastic former singer who has doubled student attendance. Last November’s dress rehearsal for the famed comic opera The Barber of Seville — the one that transported Noelia — drew a record 1,600 kids, versus the previous year’s average of 800 to 900.
About 1,000 have turned out for Norma, filling the orchestra and several balconies in the gold and white Ziff Ballet Opera House off Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami. When Diaz-Fandrei, an energetic figure in a bright red dress, steps on stage to read off a list of schools in the house, groups of kids scream and cheer, waving and striving to out-shout each other.
"What do we do with our cellphones?" she asks. "Off!" they yell. "What do you say when you like a man’s singing?" "Bravo!" "A woman?" "Brava!" "Everyone?" "Bravissimo!!!!"
Diaz-Fandrei, 32, was a teen from an impoverished family in the Bronx when a school visit to a dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera inspired her to become an opera singer. She sang with an FGO production before retiring to raise a family (her husband Graham Fandrei now heads the Young Artists apprentice program). Now she visits schools, explaining, and often singing, the operas; staging mini-performances; and using her history and understanding of kids from backgrounds like hers to pass on her love of the art form.
"They see a young person in jeans who busts out with this aria and their mouths drop open," Diaz-Fandrei said. "When they come to the dress rehearsals I hug them. I tell them opera is stories that were made for you, drama and love and betrayal and happiness. It’s for you."
Her explanation of Norma’s plot — in which an ancient Druid priestess is torn between her duty to her people and religion, and her love for a commander of the Roman invaders who betrays her for a younger priestess — lured Noelia’s friend Soto to try opera.
"When Rebekah came to talk about Norma I was captivated," Soto said. "It’s amazing to think the stories can be the same as the ones we listen to now."
Many of the kids are initially drawn by the excitement of a trip to the theater, and of experiencing something that has always seemed glamorous and remote — and financially out of reach.
"I never thought I’d be at something like this," said Davinci Saddler, 15, a sophomore at American Senior High School near Hialeah. "It’s really cool."
Patrice DeGraff, who heads the Fine Arts Academy at American Senior and brought Davinci and 16 other arts academy students to Norma, says the experience can be transformative.
"They don’t get the opportunity without nights like this," DeGraff said. "Most of my kids don’t know what opera is, or if they have any musical background, they think it’s like music theater. Initially they’re awed, then they’re curious. But once they understand the stories, they really like the drama and the romance."
One of the teachers who has embraced the FGO rehearsal program since it began is Westland Hialeah Senior High School music instructor Curtis Edwards, who brought 120 students Friday evening. Usually he shepherds over 300, talking up the shows and inviting his music students’ friends.
"Now the kids ask me every year, ‘Are we gonna go to the opera?’" Edwards said. "My job as a music instructor is to teach them about good music. If you’re not exposed to it all, you don’t know what’s good and what’s bad."
The FGO production is set in an ominously looming set, with a menacing chorus of gray-robed druids and spear-wielding Roman soldiers. Statuesque American soprano Mary Beth Williams, who plays Norma, has waist-length red hair and a meltingly rich, thrillingly powerful voice. The first act ends in suspense, as Williams rages at Frank Porretta, as her lover Pollione, and Catherine Martin as Adalgisa, her young, guilt-stricken rival.
At intermission, Westland junior Ernest Gonzalez, 16, seems startled. "I expected something smaller," he says. "I wasn’t expecting it to be so intense."
Astrid Soto and Noelia Luna’s expectations, on the other hand, are definitely being satisfied.
"It’s amazing," Soto says. "The vocals are out of this world."
"Where do I start?" says her friend. "Norma — she owned the stage."
Then the bell rings for the start of the second act, and both girls rush back into the theater.
If you go
What: Florida Grand Opera’s "Norma."
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.
Where: Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd. Miami.
Info: $12 to $225, fgo.org or 800-741-1010.
Program repeats Feb. 10-11 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale