Merritt repaying debt to a teacher Benefit: The acclaimed opera star found his calling thanks to a high-school music teacher in Oklahoma. Now history is repeating itself in Pikesville.

February 22, 1997|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

As a public school student in Oklahoma City, Chris Merritt fell serendipitously into an outstanding music program. Among his gifted instructors, Merritt, a world-acclaimed tenor who lives in Pikesville, will never forget a high-school teacher named Al Ossenkopp, known to all as "Ozzie."

Ozzie "took me to the point of no return," Merritt says. When he graduated, a singing career was a given.

At Pikesville High School, where his two children attend school, Merritt says, he has seen history repeat itself in the form of someone known to all as "Doc." That is Dr. Richard Disharoon, the school's longtime choral music teacher, who has elicited top-notch work from his students since 1964.

In a tribute to Doc's accomplishments, and to his own experience in the Oklahoma City school system, Merritt, 44, is performing a benefit concert for Pikesville High's music program at 3 p.m. tomorrow at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

At Pikesville, Merritt's children, Geri, 17, and Ryan, 16, experienced a "carbon copy of what I went through," he says.

It is the first time in 10 years that Merritt's schedule has kept him in Maryland for more than a week or two. Last week, he sang Brahms' "Rinaldo" with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and he will sing the role of Manrico in Verdi's "Il Trovatore" for the Baltimore Opera in March. In May, he performs in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Dvorak's "Rusalka."

Merritt, whose schedule is booked years in advance, is accustomed to 10 months a year on the road, performing in opera houses and concert halls from Naples to Caracas to Tokyo. For that reason, it took four years for Disharoon and Merritt's wife, Joan Coplan Merritt, to plan the benefit concert.

It was worth the wait. Disharoon considers it a great honor to have an artist described by Opera Now magazine as one of the "most versatile and daring of tenors on stage today" appear on behalf of the school.

He remembers one of his first encounters with Merritt: "Geri was a freshman, and [during] American Education Week that November, the door to my classroom opened up and in walked Chris Merritt. 'Hello, how are you?' he said. Here was this world-class singer [and all I could think was,] 'Children, I hope you sing well today.' "

By the end of class, Merritt had moved from the back to the front of the room and "was very complimentary," Disharoon says.

The Merritt children lived in Europe until they were of school age, when their parents returned to Pikesville, where Joan Merritt, a mezzo-soprano who will sing next in an Annapolis Opera production, grew up.

At the time, they couldn't know what a wise musical decision they were making.

In the same fortuitous way that Merritt found his mentor as a

youth, his children found Disharoon, he says. "Fate led us to Doc. It's almost overwhelming how fate has been good to us, guided us and directed us," he says.

The couple had considered private school for their kids, but "I was very adamant about public school," Merritt says. "By God, I went to public school, where I was trained, inspired, given ideals. know it's out there."

More than ever, Merritt realizes that public schools can use the support of people with his enthusiasm and clout. "It is unthinkable to sit back and allow [music departments] to drift off into oblivion," he says.

Strapped finances have taken a toll on Pikesville's music program. The current budget covers "bare bones stuff" such as the cost of sheet music; recently, Disharoon was informed that the Baltimore County fund for the repair of music instruments had dried up. Band uniforms need updating, and the less-than-perfect auditorium needs an acoustical shell. The 25-year-old table-top keyboards students use are showing their age as well.

Music education is "just as important as football and solving that algebra problem," Merritt says. "It is part of the equation for human life. If you don't teach that, eventually you'll have a completely gray society."

Donations to the music program are administered through Pikesville's alumni choir, which formed seven years ago for the love of singing for Doc and to support the school's current music program.

Sunday's concert marks the first time Merritt has had occasion to sing on stage with his children, although "We sing in the car like a bunch of fools, harmonizing and disharmonizing and fighting about it," he says with a resonant chuckle.

Merritt will sing arias, Broadway selections and Lennon-McCartney's "Yesterday," daughter Geri's favorite song. For some numbers, he will be accompanied by Pikesville High's combined alumni and concert choirs.

He also plans to sing a duet with a surprise guest.

A celebrity dessert reception follows the concert. The snow date is 7: 30 p.m. Monday.

Chris Merritt in concert

When: 3 p.m. Feb. 23

Where: Dalsheimer Auditorium of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave.

Tickets: $50 for the concert and reception, $25 for the concert only. A limited number of $15 balcony tickets are available.

$ Call: (410) 484-3468

Pub Date: 2/22/97

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