Bronx teacher's love of opera reverberates
An occasional series of profiles of teachers who make the grade with students and colleagues
NEW YORK — Jonathan Dzik on how to set the right tone...
"Virtually every youngster can be reached, as long as you start with their experience and use it to draw them into the world that you are opening to them."
"I recommend being knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the material you are teaching and the students you are working with.... If the teacher couldn't care less, the class won't be interested either."
"Be ready for the unexpected, both positive and negative."
Inside, the classroom goes quiet. Justine Minners holds her breath, suspended in mid-motion. Outside, the New York Police Department vans have already taken their position at the main gate of Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx borough of New York.
While police monitor the loud crowd of students coming out of the school, Justine is in her own world. She sits in a crowd of 49 students, most of them African-American or Latino, and places her palms on her loose jeans. Suddenly she puffs out her chest, and frees the melody from her wide-open mouth.
"Va, piensero, sull'alli dorate," she sings along with her classmates. It is the original version of Verdi's famous opera "Nabucco."
Justine is not a professional opera singer. Nor is she a kid taking private opera lessons. She is one of Jonathan Dzik's music students at Columbus High School.
Mr. Dzik is the head of the creative- and performing-arts department in a public school that some administrators bashfully describe as "not great." Yet, for the past 24 years, Dzik has taught these Bronxite teenagers an art form that is usually associated with tuxedos, black ties, and high heels: opera.
Where most teachers see a stuffy and complex discipline, Dzik pictures a world of universal emotions. Over the years, he has succeeded in bringing his students, mostly urban teenagers from low-income families, into the world of Carmen, Figaro, and Rigoletto.
"When I'm here, the world outside kind of disappears," Justine says. "It's like a safe haven. It takes me away from home and my problems."
Two months ago, she and another of Dzik's students competed for a chance to participate in the "Texaco Opera Quiz," a radio program designed to fill in operas' intermissions. Even though they did not win, the two scored well on questions about Verdi's "Rigoletto" and Mozart's "Don Giovanni." They competed against students from six affluent schools in Manhattan, Long Island, and Connecticut.
Everyone can love opera
They demonstrated what Dzik has been teaching for a quarter of a century: that one doesn't need to be white and wealthy to be moved by opera.
"His success lies in his belief that all students can develop a love for opera, and he makes it relevant to their life," says Nancy Shankman, director of creative and performing arts for Bronx high schools and Dzik's former supervisor. "He has this unique way of motivating his students."
In 1976, Dzik obtained his PhD in music education after writing a doctoral dissertation about how to teach opera to high school students. Dzik has always refused to think of opera as an elitist and foreign genre to which American kids cannot relate. If teenagers do not listen to opera, it is the teacher's fault, he says.
Dzik never uses the word "opera," he says, because it is enough to turn the students off. He never plays a note until the students have seen the translation. And he always searches for a way to make the story relevant to them.
"The whole secret is to start from where the students are and then bring them to this new world," Dzik says. "I try to start most of my lessons with a little gimmick that will attract their attention. That's how I teach."
When he presented Bizet's "Carmen," there was no talk of gypsies or the 19th-century kingdom of Spain. Instead, he loosely tied up a girl and instructed a boy in the class to bring her up to the dean. He then asked the girl to show the class how she would persuade the boy to free her. That's the story of Carmen, Dzik told the class.
"Anybody could get into opera if it is presented in a palatable manner," he says. Dzik leads a workshop at the Metropolitan Opera, where he explains his technique to other music teachers. Twice a year, he also takes his students to the opera. He is the only teacher from a Bronx public high school to participate in the Metropolitan School Membership Program, which enables some schools to attend final dress rehearsal for less than $5 per student. This year, 40 seniors from Columbus High saw "Rigoletto" and "La Bohme."
A lyrical legacy
"If you go to the Bronx, you won't find many high school students who want to work in opera," says Aaryn Post, program coordinator at the Metropolitan Opera Guild. "He is so inspirational that he had kids who wanted to become opera singers."
In less than two months, this tall man from Tennessee, whose father wanted him to be an optometrist, will retire. His only legacy, he says, is his students.
One of them, Lysa Woodward, now 25, remembers Dzik's dedication well. He inspired his students and made them want go to school, she says, adding that some families even lied about their zip code to have their child attend the music department at Columbus.
Dzik showed these children of rap and rock music the power of opera, Ms. Woodward says. She seems to be forever in debt to him because he gave her the confidence to pursue her love of music.
She now works as a professional soul/rock singer and composer and is on the verge of signing a contract for her own album. Yet she still takes singing lessons with opera teachers because she finds that it enhances the quality of her voice.
"I know that when I put my album out, Jonathan will be someone in the credits that I thank," Woodward says.
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