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High notes Jena Abati, 13, balances homework with voice career

Try balancing volleyball tryouts, school musical auditions, school and homework, high school entrance exam prep courses, shopping with friends and sleepovers on an almost-weekly basis.

Now add in a full-time "hobby" as an aspiring opera singer -- with lessons at least twice a week, practice seven days a week, weekly 90-minute drives to Rochester and performances three or four times a month -- and you've got some idea of the busy life of 13-year-old Jena Abati.

As a music student at both the Villa Maria Institute of Music and the Eastman School of Music and the youngest-ever member of Buffalo's prestigious Chromatic Club, Jena is just another typical eighth-grader at St. Mary's Elementary School in Lancaster.

OK, so she's not quite typical, but that's really OK with her.

"I find time to hang out with friends, go to (school) dances and see movies," Jena says. Come December, you'll find her on the ski slopes. "I love skiing!" she says.

Hanging out in her American Eagle white shorts with a sparkly pink belt and her Eastman School of Music T-shirt, Jena sat down in her Lancaster home for an evening of home videos of her singing (you won't believe the beautiful sounds that come out of this girl's mouth!) and a peek into her busy life.

Her mom is an accountant and her dad an engineer, and no one is quite sure where Jena's vocal talent comes from.

Sister Tara, who is studying medicine at the University at Buffalo, says Jena "just has great vocal cords," says their mom, Pam Abati.

Jena got her start at the age of 2 when "her cousins were in a choir and (the choir) would let her sing 'The Drummer Boy' every year at the holidays," says Pam. After a few "pa rum pum pum pums," Jena sang for four years at St. Mary's Elementary School in Lancaster, but it quickly became apparent that she needed more than the school could offer her.

"By the time she was 9, she would come home and say, 'I can hit this high note' or 'I can hit this other high note,'" her mother recalled.

A search for a voice teacher led them to Adrienne Tworek-Gryta at the Villa Maria Institute of Music.

Jena "very quickly exhibited a very high-quality voice," says Tworek-Gryta. "She had started out listening a bit to (teen opera sensation) Charlotte Church -- that's what got her interest going. I tried to explain to Jena and her mom that this was not necessarily the height of vocal production and steered them into listening to some other voices singing the same repertoire." It was the voices of opera stars Cecilia Bartoli and Renee Fleming that caught Jena's attention and made her fall in love with classical music.

"One of (Adrienne's) other students was singing classical music, and I aspired to do what she was doing," says Jena. Although Jena's rendition of "I Could Have Danced All Night" from "My Fair Lady" is mature beyond her years, Jena moved from Broadway music, and Tworek-Gryta helped develop her lyrical coloratura soprano voice.

Singing at a level that might be expected of an advanced 17- or 18-year old, Jena has mastered pieces such as "Caro Mio Ben," an Italian song by Giuseppe Giordoni, and "Voi che sapete," one of her favorites, from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."

When Jena recently auditioned for the Eastman School of Music and was accepted, she couldn't have been happier. Showing off her Eastman ID card, Jena said, "I feel important when I walk down the halls, proud I got into Eastman."

Now an eighth-grader at St. Mary's, Jena has maintained an average of 97.5 for the past three years despite her hectic schedule. Her average day doesn't end when the bell rings at 2 p.m. either. "I love softball," says Jena, who played on the school team last year. This year she's eager to make it onto the volleyball team but is also hoping for a role in the school musical, "The King and I."

After practices, it's singing time. When she's not at her weekly lesson with Tworek-Gryta at the Villa Maria Institute of Music, Jena warms up her voice for a half hour before her daily hour and a half practices on her own.

"She certainly has intellect, passion, steely quiet determination and poise," says Tworek-Gryta. "Jena seems demure and quiet, but I know from experience how much fire and drama she has in her. All those things are necessary for pursuing this career."

After dinner (Jena has an appetite for healthy food but enjoys treating herself to French fries and dark chocolate once in a while), Jena spends evenings doing homework, then rechecking it before she heads to bed. "Sometimes I don't get to bed until 11:30 or 12!," says Jena, with facial expressions that add meaning to everything, a skill Tworek-Gryta has been teaching her to do while singing in order to express the meaning of songs, which are often sung in Italian, Latin or French.

When it is finally time for bed, it's the sounds of Renee Fleming that Jena falls asleep to.

Jena does finds time for a little rest and relaxation. Fridays are "girls night."

"She does more sleepovers than anyone!" says Pam, who encourages her daughter to spend time with friends and just be a kid. (In August the Abatis spent a week at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Ohio where Jena and her friends were regulars on the "Dragster" ride.)

Another favorite Friday night activity with her girlfriends is shopping. Jena's favorite stores include Hollister, Abercrombie, American Eagle and PacSun, even though at school she has to wear a uniform that she is far from impressed with.

But where the clothing does get elaborate are the dresses Jena wears for her performances. "I love getting ready, dressing up and everything," says Jena. With almost 10 gowns in her daughter's collection, ranging from a sparkly, white, strapless gown to a sleek, shiny red dress, Pam's wallet is getting light. "It's infrequent that we find one for under $200," she says, adding that the family is "building a walk-in closet" for the gowns and other things.

Another balancing act Jena and her family are working out is a way to attend the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and take a five-week preparation course before she applies to private high schools for next fall.

At Eastman, Jena trains with Cecile Saine.

"At Villa Maria, Jena is a big fish; at Eastman she's a minnow in a very big pond," her mom observed.

"They train you like an adult but they treat you nicely," says Jena of lessons at Eastman, which is meticulous about everything from the temperature of the water singers drink to how they should stand while singing.
Jena's weekends are filled with performances at weddings, recitals or at her church where she cantors. In tow, whenever possible, is her favorite accompanist, David Bond.

"She's very easy to work with," says the First Presbyterian Church grand master organist. "She has a very natural talent, she's enthusiastic and she works hard," Bond said.

For Jena, already a master of the life-balancing act, the future looks bright. "Some of my goals are that I really want to sing in Italy for the pope, in Washington for the president, with philharmonics and the Metropolitan Opera in New York," says Jena, who has recently been busy in the recording studio working on her latest demo tape.

Despite her undeniable talent, the key word right now is patience "When the time is right, she will be found," says Pam, who never contacts media for coverage or goes out of her way to get her daughter noticed. "We've had agents call saying, 'She's so young, you should be marketing her now.' Someday she'll get there (to fame and success) but on pure talent, not because she's pretty."

But lucky for her, pretty she is.

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