by Michelle A.L. Singer
When the subject of passion comes up, intensely loving what you do and devoting large amounts of
energy to it, Naomi Flanders comes immediately to mind. She’s a teacher, director, artist, musician and singer, and when I gave up trying to boil her passion down to one subject, she did it for me: “I love life, being alive. And I express that, the beauty I see around me all the time, through art and especially the performance arts.”
As we sat over tea at the kitchen table in the house she grew up in on Brazier Road in East Montpelier, looking through the big picture window at Echo Valley and Spruce Mountain she muses, “It’s prehistoric. People need food, water, warmth, and arts give all that. People come to a show and have something to eat and drink, sit down and get comfortable, and then there’s entertainment, color, music; it’s just like being around the fire, telling stories. It’s deep in us.”
Growing up, her parents, Anne and Ralph Flanders, raised nine children in the house we were sitting in, and she says, “They were playful. Serious, but playful.” It was a religious and structured household where they were read to three times a day by their parents. After breakfast, after lunch, and after dinner when the kids would clean up and do dishes before sitting down to a reading from the Holy Bible, followed by reading from classics — Shakespeare, Chaucer, Grimm’s fairy tales — and then prayer. “Shakespeare has always been present in my life,” she says. “The impact of hearing my mother read dovetailed into everything.”
Her father played the piano and listened to opera on the radio before bed many nights. Flanders says she remembers the way the music made her feel awake and enlivened. At age four, she sat in her father’s lap listening to Handel’s Messiah and told him she was going to sing like the lady in the record one day. She did, and her parents were in the audience to hear her.
She says it was inevitable that she would get her bachelor’s degree from Johnson State College in humanities with an emphasis on music. She was steeped from an early age in opera, literature, and music. Despite her early passion for music, singing and English, she says she was a spectacular underachiever, purposely flunking algebra three times so she wouldn’t have to endure higher-level math. It wasn’t until college when her biology professor took her aside and said, “Flanders, you’re smart. Now, I want you to work.” It changed her life and she started to truly focus and have discipline. “Following your path is not for the faint of heart,” she says, “But I highly recommend it! Do what you’re good at and what you want, and it brings you joy. Not that it isn’t hard, or full of sorrow too. It is, but it’s also full of joy.”
For her, it was focusing on music and singing, especially singing, and she considers herself lucky because she had so many generous teachers who appeared at just the right times, people like Brian Webb who encouraged her and took her work seriously. Her voice studies included methods like Feldenkrais, which focuses on the breath, the whole body, and awareness through movement.
She continues the traditions she was taught as a voice coach and piano teacher. “I try to give back in the same way as my generous teachers. I tell my students to do what they feel they do well and is true to themselves. What else is life for?”
Her open-hearted approach to performance arts and inherited community-minded spirit is embodied in our community in her Shakespeare summer camps for kids that she hosts with Neil Worden, community opera performances like “The Marriage of Figaro” she directed and presented at the Plainfield Opera House, and her upcoming production of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” Dec. 13, also at the Plainfield Opera House. There will be two performances, one at 5 p.m. and another at 7 p.m., accompanied by Susannah Blachly on fiddle. Local actors, including Susannah and Tom Blachly, Elizabeth Wilcox, Diane Holland, Cady Burgess and Cydney Ferras will bring this classic Christmas poem to life.
“It’s a scary business,” says Flanders of the arts. “It’s a big risk that you take, opening yourself up. And sometimes you fail spectacularly. But you prevail; you find a way to continue to create. People sometimes say artists don’t have common sense. It isn’t about common sense. It’s bigger than anything. I have tremendous respect for the people I work with.”
For more information about Flanders or “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, visit the Echo Valley Community Arts Facebook page or reach Flanders at 225-6471.