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Finding Her Voice

Shyla Nelson has operatic aspirations


Published May 14, 2003 at 8:31 p.m.

It's now or never, and she's going for it, Shyla Nelson has decided -- "it" being a career as an opera singer. And that's noteworthy not just because she's from Burlington, Vermont, a town better known in the music world as the birthplace of Phish and their jam-rock descendants. What's more remarkable is that Nelson is 35 years old and a divorced mother of two young children; typically a classically inclined performer begins training, networking and making a mark in her twenties, when she's still free of family-raising responsibilities.

But with an engagingly pretty face, a gorgeous soprano voice, steely determination and the tactical skills of a general, Shyla Nelson isn't typical. Neither is the fact that she recently won a month-long study and performance session at the prestigious International Institute of Vocal Arts in Chiari, Italy. A friend who sings at the Metropolitan Opera recommended she try out for it last February, at the IIVA's home base in New York City. Nelson instantly bowled over the judges -- with an aria from Carmen she sang last year for the Vermont Opera Theater, and a piece from Die Fledermaus she'll perform with the Mozart Festival this summer. "I had no idea what to expect, had never auditioned before," Nelson says. "They accepted me on the spot." She was one of just 45 singers chosen from around the world.

The coveted opportunity doesn't come cheap -- including travel, the "whole package" is $6000 to $8000, she estimates -- and raising the money to attend the Institute can be as challenging as getting in. That's where "Opera di Quattro" comes in: Nelson has organized a benefit concert -- she calls it "musical magic from the world of opera" -- with three other singers and a pianist this Sunday, May 18, at St. Paul's Cathedral in Burlington. On the program are pieces she'll perform four days later at another international singing competition in New York. First prize: 10 grand.

Nelson admits she was amazed to win her audition for IIVA, yet the experience fit into her game plan: Though she'd been performing off and on since high school, last year she decided to give up the day job [at the Waldorf School] and take on her "original professional passion" full-time. "My 'clock' as a singer started ticking -- this is really my last opportunity chronologically." Nelson explains that women's voices typically come into maturity in their mid-thirties, "if you really take good care of your instrument."

She created a practical business plan and set herself some demanding goals: Over the year she would get the word out to composers and directors that she was "back at it." She would find opportunities to perform, begin to network, and "explore the opportunities for emerging professional singers to participate in" -- study institutes and competitions. And, not least, to pick up the kind of business savvy her studies at the University of Vermont and Oberlin Conservatory did not include. "One hopes, if you do well, to come into contact with agents and coaches," Nelson says.

So far, she's ahead of schedule. With an income provided by voice students, singing gigs and the occasional stage directing -- such as the Oriana Singers' "A Spring Fling with a Unicorn" last Sunday -- Nelson is already making a living with music. And no one who knows her is surprised. "She's extremely well organized," says Bill Metcalfe, Oriana leader and a conductor with the Vermont Mozart Festival. "Shyla has a great deal of talent, has a lovely, pure voice and uses it very intelligently. The question is whether she can translate all of that into a career that will depend on the kind of instruction and guidance and nurturing she gets in the really hard art of singing opera on stage."

As with competitive athletes, in the rigorous world of classical training, having the right instruction makes all the difference. Nelson explains that a teacher trains the voice itself; a coach assists with the technical aspects of being on stage, such as presentation and interpretative skills. "Part of the work I've been doing this year is singing for teachers who can help me know what my voice is best suited for," she says. Nelson calls the month of intense training, the lessons and mentoring with professionals at IIVA "an amazing deal." The study also includes daily Italian classes and saturation in a culture that is essential to opera. "Luckily I already know Italian," Nelson notes wryly. "But I'm doing some major brushing up."

Some of Nelson's earliest training, when she was still a teen, came from local teacher and fellow soprano Jill Hallett Levis. "Shyla had the potential for a very gifted voice -- a very clean, accurate voice," Levis says. "And she had a certain element that you can't teach, a budding musical gift, and a deportment that was very pleasant to watch." At that age Nelson had not yet exhibited a burning desire to be a professional, but was "just finding her voice." Now Levis, who performed with the Oriana Singers last Sunday under Nelson's stage direction, finds her former student "a multi-talented person -- and in this day and age that's a bonus."

Nelson's academic interests -- women's studies, music and theology -- coalesced a few years ago when she organized a conference about the 12th-century abbess and composer-musician Hildegarde von Bingen. She put together people and resources from UVM, St. Michael's College and Trinity College, as well as scholars from around the country, for an event that combined lectures and performances. "The festival was an inspiration that came to me and never left," Nelson says. "For some reason, in every area of my life, I have brought people together who had never worked together before, to see what happened."

Nelson says the Hildegarde experience laid the groundwork for her involvement in helping develop a Waldorf high school. Initially introduced to the alternative Shelburne school by her then-husband, a Waldorf teacher, Nelson herself became a music and history teacher there for about six years.

For this week's "Opera di Quattro," Nelson created an ensemble of musicians who had never performed together before: mezzo-soprano Wendy Hoffman Farrell, tenor Wayne Hobbs, baritone Larry Rudiger and pianist Mary Jane Austin. Dave Braun, whom Nelson calls "the quintessential opera fan," will emcee the event. She adds that the four singers will reunite for Die Fledermaus this summer.

Nelson's first full year in the opera game has gone pretty smoothly. Asked what her career would look like if she could plan the rest of it so well, she hesitates only a moment: "I want to have it all -- I want a rich, fulfilling family life and a singing career. If the Met came calling, I wouldn't turn it away."

Nelson says she's read about other singers who face the challenges of balancing kids and career. "Achieving balance is always a negotiation," she suggests. "But I feel I have the support in my family to weigh those challenges as they come up."

One of Nelson's loudest cheerleaders is her dad, Garrison Nelson, a political science prof at UVM and in-demand prognosticator of political races. His prediction for his daughter? "She's got the talent, the drive and the support system within the community. One of the advantages of growing up in Burlington is that people who have been hearing her sing since high school have rallied and basically given her the support one needs to take this risk," he suggests. "My mother was an actress, my father was a novelist, and neither could crack the big time because they didn't have this support in place. I think she has a much better chance."

Shyla Nelson isn't lacking for gumption; guessing there are "tens of thousands" of opera singers in the world, she doesn't underestimate the competition on the way to stages, contracts and recording studios. But for all the fiery passion, her ultimate goals are reasonable: "I want it to go as far as my instrument will take me and still hold onto myself as a human being," Nelson says. "This is the only professional thing I would regret not trying -- I don't want to live with that 'what if.'"