When Federico Cortese talks about the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras’ annual operas, he visibly glows with pride.
“Every year, it’s sold out,” the conductor said in a recent interview at the BYSO administrative offices near Boston University. “If I may say, it’s fairly unique for a youth orchestra.” There are only so many parents and grandparents, he explained; maybe 400. When the BYSO presents Verdi’s “Aida” on Jan. 26 at Sanders Theatre, most of its almost 1,200 seats will be filled with listeners from the general public.
Now back up to the fact that this orchestra, which is made up of high schoolers and a few middle schoolers from around the greater Boston area, is performing an entire opera. Most professional symphony orchestras don’t do full operas. For youth orchestras, it’s almost unheard of.
But Cortese, who’s known to one and all as “Fed,” relishes putting his teenage players to this test. He started to introduce vocal music to the BYSO gradually after assuming the music director post in 1999. Opera scenes became acts, which then led to the orchestra doing Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” for its 50th anniversary year in 2008. By now, the annual opera has become the organization’s “signature piece.”
“When I see alumni, they always tell me ‘I was in the year where we did ‘Don Giovanni,' or ‘Rigoletto,’ or ‘Macbeth,'” Cortese said. ”Doesn’t matter what Mahler symphony we did, or what Wagner thing ... it’s always the opera that is the flagship of the year.”
When music schools choose operatic repertoire, they often tailor it to the developing voices of young soloists and choruses. But because the BYSO engages professional singers — like soprano Marjorie Owens, the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions finals winner who will sing the title role in “Aida” — Cortese can throw any book he wants at the orchestra, and he aims to challenge them. He adores Italian bel canto like Donizetti and Bellini, for example, but he doesn’t give that to the BYSO; by his measure, it’s not technically demanding enough on the orchestra.
Instead, he’s given them Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi — lots of Verdi; “Aida” brings the BYSO’s tally of Verdi operas to six. For many of the young players, playing “Aida,” or any opera, will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. By Cortese’s estimate, about 70 percent of them won’t go on to pursue musical careers, “which is wonderful, because it tells you how high level they are. They consider it part of their general formation,” he said.
“There’s something amazing about having people who have never played an opera, discovering it,” said Edward Berkeley, the longtime Juilliard School faculty member who has been stage directing BYSO operas for several years. “They’re very skillful players, and Fed is truly great at teaching them. They feel the style, the energy, and the passion.”
Berkeley has directed plays and operas at houses big and small all around the country, but at Sanders, he has to do more with less. Because the orchestra takes up so much of the stage, the singers have very limited space to work with. However, he doesn’t see this as a setback.
“The whole space really becomes the stage. There’s plenty of options in terms of physical and visual choices,” he said over the phone.
Costumes can also help set the tone, and the BYSO’s “Aida” is casting off the ancient Egyptian drag, instead setting the opera in a militaristic fascist country on the brink of war. “Operas are always relevant,” Cortese said. “The language may be a language of the past ... Verdi, for instance, is obsessed with power and what that does to human beings. And how personal relationships, for instance love, get completely crushed in this struggle for power.” Anyone who feels enthusiastic about war, he said, should see “Aida” and see how they feel afterward.
Most of all, the annual opera requires the young players to adopt a drastically different mindset than they do for orchestral concerts. “It’s obvious that it’s not something they’re familiar with. And at the beginning it’s always learning a new language and new habits, and getting yelled at, poor things,” he said. “They need to know the music much better than they would know other music, because they need to be much more reactive.”
But it transforms the orchestra for the better every year, he said. “After the opera, the orchestra feels very different to conduct. They really learn something.”
Presented by Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras. Jan. 26, 3 p.m. Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, Cambridge. 617-496-2222, bysoweb.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.