November 01, 2002 2 min read

Choral Crusader

Ron Frezzo, vocal director at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.
—Photo by David Kidd

Mention the opera to high school students, and you’re likely to receive a round of yawns followed by a few eye rolls. But in Ron Frezzo’s classroom at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland, Verdi and Puccini win enthusiastic applause.

Frezzo, the school’s vocal director, wasn’t interested in the genre himself until he attended his first opera when he was in college, but he doesn’t see any reason for his students to wait that long. Although he doesn’t offer a formal opera course, Frezzo infuses the topic into his five music classes by explaining performers’ techniques in opera recordings and videos. “They get a sense of a different type of singing than they’re used to,” Frezzo says. In addition, once or twice a year, Frezzo leads a group of students to the Kennedy Center in nearby Washington, D.C., to experience Washington Opera performances. “When they see it, it’s a whole different world,” he says. “They’re usually surprised at liking it. I’d say 90 percent come back liking opera.”

The trick to making the ancient art form palatable to teen-agers is choosing the right opera, the teacher says. “You wouldn’t take them to a Wagner,” he suggests, referring to the 19th-century German composer known for monumental works like the 14-hour “Ring” cycle. “If you’re going to introduce them to opera, then there has to be some dramatic action, colorful scenes.” He admits that to draw students into his classes, he has to defeat attitudes that singing is “dorky.” But he’s not beyond employing assertive recruiting strategies. “If I hear a kid singing in the hallway, I’ll drag them in for an audition or I’ll say, ‘Hey, that’s good—why don’t you come talk to me sometime?’ ”

Frezzo’s efforts are paying off. In the past three years, two of his students have been among the winners of the ChevronTexaco Opera Quiz Kids competition, a national contest that tests high schoolers’ knowledge of the genre’s composers, plots, and musical structure. And the teacher has convinced all sorts of kids to give opera a listen. Gerardo Navarro, a 2002 graduate now serving in the Marine Corps, was hesitant about seeing his first opera when he was a junior. “I thought I was going to fall asleep,” Navarro admits. Instead, he wound up enjoying the performance. Now, he says, “I love the singing, the people, the acting, and the language is beautiful.”

—Rose Gordon