December 13, 2023

Class in session

Enrique Mazzola leads the way on a renewed relationship with the Merit School of Music. 

Teaching, says Enrique Mazzola, has “absolutely not been part of my career. I have always felt that there is a responsibility to transmit one’s experience of music. To pass it on. To me, music was not a subject to be taught but an enchanting realm to be explored. Teaching music seemed like something almost impossible.”

But in the past few years, Lyric’s Music Director has, well, changed his tune. During his tenure as Artistic & Music Director of the Orchestre national d’Île-de-France from 2012 to 2019, he saw firsthand how engaging with young people contributed to building audience. And then last year, in his second full season at Lyric, Mazzola made his first visits to the Merit School of Music. A longtime partner organization with Lyric, Merit’s self-described mission is to “transform the lives of Chicago-area youth through removing barriers to high-quality music education.” Located in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, the school has been executing on that vision since its founding in 1979, especially for students from diverse backgrounds. One-on-one lessons are offered in all instruments, and many students participate in larger ensembles. The school’s commitment to nurturing young musicians aligns perfectly with the broader mission of Lyric Opera of Chicago as a cultural citizen and leader.

“We are offering the students at Merit an opportunity to engage with Lyric professionals in various areas of expertise to introduce students to opera and support their learning in music education,” says Jill LeCesne Potter, Senior Director of Learning Programs at Lyric. “These opportunities can reflect anything from coaching sessions in technique, seminars, master classes, and open rehearsals to performances.” The program takes place as part of the school’s Artist Residencies program, which has drawn luminaries such as Marta Aznavoorian, Marquis Hill, Nathalie Joachim, Yo- Yo Ma, Anthony McGill, and others. A highlight from last year’s partnership was a visit from Martin Luther Clark, an ensemble member with the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, who spoke with students about the many different pathways that can open up though musical education. Several times in the fall, Mazzola worked with the orchestral ensemble and soloists, giving students the chance to work under one of the world’s leading conductors.

This year, Maestro’s visits will include two rehearsals with Merit’s philharmonic — one with strings, the other with the full orchestra. He will also serve as a guest at Merit’s Saturday seminar-style sessions called Live from Gottlieb where he will preview Aida. The first meeting, just this past October, was focused less on pedagogy and more on getting acquainted and looking out over the year ahead. Lyric Unlimited organizers also deployed one of the most potent and attention-getting methods available to educators: they brought pizza. This spring, the series of residencies will include not only rehearsals of the overture to The Magic Flute, but also less formal interactions, where Mazzola will be in conversation with the students about careers in music and other relevant subjects. He hopes “to be a guide, mentor, and source of inspiration.”

The learning, Mazzola notes, travels in both directions. “I have read of many famous teachers who say that a teaching moment is an act of self-reflection. What are we doing? Why are we doing what we are doing?” The fact that the young players don’t necessarily know what Mazzola is seeking with a particular hand gesture from the podium has been refreshing for him. Even an accomplished conductor can sometimes revisit the basics — especially in such an environment.

“Our partnership with Merit is incredibly rewarding, and our colleagues there are exceptional collaborators,” says Potter. “We come to the planning table with a shared belief that music has the power to transform our lives — to inspire, to heal, to exchange our stories and lived experiences, and to imagine what is possible. All of this manifests in the curiosity of their students and the range of talent that awakens when the students sing and play!”