Life with Gracie: Meet Layla, the Metropolitan Opera’s youngest ambassador

For at least the last two decades, we’ve been hearing about the benefits of classical music in the lives of young children.

It improves memory. It enhances intellect. It even enhances social skills.

Experts called it the Mozart effect.

If you had any doubt about that, you lay it all down the minute you step into the home of Nick and Alicia Felder.

La Bohème, Giacomo Puccini’s unforgettable tale of young love and tragic loss, wafts softly through the front door, and there to greet you is their precocious 12-year-old daughter Layla, extending her hand and a warm welcome.

Right away you imagine Layla in her element at the local cinema, one moment attending a local Met Opera HD transmission and promoting an upcoming show or making note of audience feedback for current and past productions, and the next visiting New York’s Metropolitan opera. That is huge for a black kid from Atlanta and, by the way, is the reason you’ve come calling in the first place.

Layla is the youngest ambassador of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD, a series of high-definition performances transmitted to movie theaters worldwide.

The initiative, started with the opera’s 2012-2013 season, is the brainchild of the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb and is aimed at increasing the opera’s creative and international reach.

Gelb said ambassadors like Layla, who travels to New York once or twice a year, go through a rigorous recruitment process and must have a passion for the Met and Live in HD.

“We look for people who are culturally engaged – subscribers to their local opera, members of their local museum, active on social media, and leaders in their community,” he said.

Layla, of course, is all those things.

Long before she became an ambassador, she lived and breathed classical music and the opera. She and members of Kids Opera and Art posse have single-handedly raised over $17,000 that helps fund the opera’s national education program.

As an ambassador, she works with the Met’s marketing team to develop the opera audience in metro Atlanta, generating awareness and fostering interest in Live in HD broadcasts.

This year marks Layla’s second in the ambassador program, but the sixth-grader has been moving and shaking in opera circles since age 7, when she founded the Kids Opera and Art Posse to get more kids interested in the art and started going on tours and to lectures at the High Museum.

“It’s really fun,” she said after noticing the upward movement of my eyebrow.

At the museum, she wasn’t treated like a little kid. But at the opera, she said, “people would talk to me like I was a 3-year-old with limited vocabulary.”

Oh, Lord. This is one of those moments when you feel like Steve Harvey must feel when he’s talking to one of those tykes on “Little Big Shots.”

Alicia smiles like I imagine her smiling about her little girl’s entire life. Incredulous.

Like so many of us, she’d read somewhere about the impact of classical music on children, and so from the moment she knew she was pregnant with Layla, she started listening to Mozart.

“I’d put headphones on my stomach,” Alicia Felder said.

She noticed when she played a certain song from an “Amadeus” CD, Layla would bang her feet or elbow on her stomach.

“As soon as it was over, she’d stop,” she said.

A week after Layla arrived, her mom noticed her little girl recognized the music.

“She picked her head up and started looking around the room,” she said.

Layla reaction was the same whether she was listening to Bach or Beethoven.

“She loved it, but I never dreamed it would turn to this,” Alicia Felder said.

Although Alicia Felder grew up in New York, neither she nor Layla’s dad are opera fans. They’ve simply followed their little girl’s lead.

Once she showed an interest in classical music, they bought her the Met’s Magic Flute DVD and started taking her to the Met Opera’s Live in HD broadcasts, comedies and then gradually dramas.

“Now I see everything, including tragedies and the gory stuff,” she said.

She figures she’s seen at least 88 operas total and loves every bit from the sets and costumes to the singers and conductors and architecture and fashion.

“Every little part of the opera matters,” she said. “That’s why I like the Met. They have the best singers, the best conductors, and the best musicians. Once you’ve been to the Met, nothing else satisfies.

“It’s almost like a movie, but better, because you can be any age, race or gender as long as you have a good voice. In Hollywood it’s also about the look. Good looks and personality will only take you so far, the voice will take you the rest of the way. Opera stars are cool, hip. Nothing like the stereotypes.”

Spoken like a true ambassador.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. Atlanta. News. Now.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. Atlanta. News. Now.