Singer’s on a high note after Italian program picks her


By Albert Amateau

West Village neighbors of the Burton family are sharing the mounting excitement about a local girl who is anything but unsung.

Denise Burton, a lyric soprano born and raised on Barrow St., where her father has been the superintendent of a residential building for more than 30 years, is a very busy woman this week.

On June 2, she graduates from the master’s program of the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music and, on June 1, she gives a benefit concert in Laughland Hall at the Church of St. Luke-in-the-Field on Hudson St.

The benefit is to get herself to Chiari, Italy, where she has been selected to attend the intensive four-week summer opera program of the International Institute of Vocal Arts from June 20 to July 17.

Not only is she busy practicing for the St. Luke’s concert (phone 212-675-2519 for ticket information), she is also preparing arias from the Mozart operas “Cosi Fan Tutte” and “Don Giovanni,” assignments for the I.I.V.A. course. At the same time, Burton goes to work every morning to her “day job” as a reception coordinator at The Princeton Review in New Jersey, where she has worked for the past five years.

“She’s a remarkable young woman from a remarkable family,” said Leslie Sharpe, a Barrow St. neighbor who has known the family for nearly 30 years. “I remember her as a 3-year-old holding onto her father’s hand. We’ve watched her grow up and now she’s about to begin an opera career,” Sharpe declared.

Burton, 28, whose energy and bright personality are appropriate for an opera singer, credits her success to her family and friends. Her father, Abraham, and mother, Louise, who came to the Village from the Caribbean city of Belize 40 years ago, are her constant supporters. Her older sister, Carla, is coordinating the benefit concern. Her two older brothers, Stuart, who is about to open a fitness gym, and Abraham, a jazz saxophone player and leader of a jazz combo, are also promoting her career.

“We’re a very close family,” she said at an interview last week. Being the youngest, she said, made her the “baby” and she has always felt protected. Her early school years were at P.S. 41 the Greenwich Village School. Then she went to I.S. 70 in Chelsea, where at the age of 12, her friend, Raintree Halpern, talked her into auditioning for a school musical. “I was scared to death,” she said, recalling her first performance in a trio. But the experience grew on her and she applied to LaGuardia High School where the curriculum combined music, art and theater.

“You’d be amazed at the musical talent of the children at that school,” she said, recalling her introduction to classical music. “Kids came from all over the city — all over the world — because of the school. I had a close friend, an oboist, from Israel who came because she wanted to go to the school. She’d started studying music when she was 5. It was intense,” Burton recalled.

She had followed her sister Carla, who played clarinet and her brother Stuart, a percussionist, to LaGuardia. By this time Burton was committed to singing and on graduation, went on to SUNY Purchase in White Plains, where music and theater arts were the big attractions. “We called it LaGuardia Part II,” said Burton. But in her second year, she developed nodules on her vocal chords and stopped singing for a while. And after graduating from SUNY in 1998 she got a job at The Princeton Review, a student test preparation company, and didn’t sing for two years.

“I learned a lot about throat anatomy,” she said. “I learned that the nodules, calluses on the vocal chords weren’t the result of singing as much as speaking,” she said. Despite the affliction, Burton still had the yearning to perform and went to a vocal coach, Susan Young. “I sang a little song for her and she said I had too much talent to quit. She suggested that I take master’s at Brooklyn College. I did and it was great experience. The whole spirit of the graduate program was opera,” she said.

The nodule problem appeared again during her second semester. “I cried my eyes out, but I took speech therapy and went on with the program,” Burton said. The nodules eventually had less and less affect on her singing and she completed the program. The graduation ceremony at Brooklyn College on June 2 will be the payoff on her dedication, faith and hard work.

A friend from Brooklyn College, Julia Amisano, went to the I.I.V.A. program in Chiari last year and urged her to audition this past winter. “I sang an aria from ‘Turandot’ but I messed it up and almost freaked out. Then I sang a couple of art songs that went well,” Burton recalled.

“They called me a few weeks later and told me I was accepted in the program and I was shocked. I’m still in shock,” she said.

A friend, Garret Hornsby, came up with the idea of a benefit concert with another friend, Nicholas Boston. Errol Grimes, who has a dance company, has joined the project and is accepting tax-free checks made out to Errol Grimes Dance Group Inc. and marked Denise Burton Benefit.

A friend and fellow student from Brooklyn College, Galina Gavaliy, will accompany Burton at the concert. “She’s a phenomenal pianist and she’ll be famous one day,” Burton said.

The concert at Laughland Hall at St. Luke’s will include the aria from Puccini’s “Turandot” that Burton thought she messed up for the I.I.V.A. audition, a Schubert art song in German, a Fauré song in French and one in English, the latter which is very familiar but Burton wants it to be a surprise.