Opera buffs polish skills at school

Maryland teacher shows students 'what they're missing,' creates opera quiz powerhouse

— Many teens might prefer to tune into the latest boy band or rap song than sit through an aria. Not those in music teacher Ron Frezzo's class.

Two of Frezzo's high school students have taken top honors in a 3-year-old national opera quiz for teens, and several have reached the final rounds.


AP Photo

Richard Montgomery High School junior Stevie Miller, left, is one of three finalists in a national opera quiz for teen-agers. Her music teacher, Ron Frezzo, right, has coached two national finalists for the quiz in three years.

The teacher says he's just showing students what they are missing.

"The majority of people would not be exposed to it at this age," he says. "But if you take them to the opera, 90 percent of them end up liking it."

Using the resources of the nearby Washington Opera's educational department, Frezzo has introduced hundreds of students at Richard Montgomery High School to the likes of Verdi and Puccini, and seen the students compete in the ChevronTexaco Opera Quiz Kids competition for high school students.

One of this year's three national finalists is Susan "Stevie" Miller, a 16-year-old junior at Richard Montgomery who survived three rounds earlier this year, beating out hundreds of students from around the United States and Canada.

She'll test her opera knowledge against the two other finalists on April 6 during a live national broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The other finalists are Alison Moritz, 16, a 10th-grader at Ladue High in St. Louis, and Nika Hasegawa, 17, a senior at Evanston (Ill.) Township School.

Grounded in the classics

Stevie's family is filled with opera buffs. Operatic music plays at her house all the time, and her grandparents explained the plot of "Madame Butterfly" to her when she was 6.

"To me, knowing the little bits of trivia makes opera that much more interesting," she says.

But Stevie knows more than scattered facts. In the regional competition held at the Washington Opera, she drew on knowledge of composers, arias and plots from three different operas � "La Boheme" by Puccini, "Falstaff" by Verdi and "The Flying Dutchman" by Wagner.

For the national round, held in early February in Houston, contestants were required to know Italian and German operas from the 19th and 20th centuries.

"They asked them to learn 30 different pieces so they could know them all by ear," says Frezzo. "I know I couldn't do that."

Stevie began studying opera seriously after trying out for last year's opera quiz. She didn't make it past the first round, but found a new appreciation for the music.

"I like the music mostly, but some of the plots are funny, like 'The Marriage of Figaro.' Some people think opera is all stiff and formal, but it really isn't if you know what's going on," she says.

Relating to the characters

Frezzo tries to demystify opera in his choral class, perhaps playing a score or spending a few days discussing the history of opera. He takes students to reduced-rate matinees at the Kennedy Center, and uses CDs and other materials that the Washington Opera sends him.

He and Debra Evans of the opera company's education department hope students will see that the dramas, often set more than 100 years ago, are still relevant.

The Quiz Kids competition is an extension of the ChevronTexaco opera quiz. The regular quiz has been part of the Met's weekly radio broadcast since 1940.

Stevie picked up about $1,500 in scholarship money as she made her way through the competition, and won a free weekend in New York for the broadcast. Along with her family and Frezzo, she'll sit in the ChevronTexaco box for a Metropolitan Opera performance of "Falstaff."

She says that despite opera's bad image among some of her peers, the only one who really hassles her is her 14-year-old brother.

"He's the only person who has ever made fun of me for it."


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