Enhancing education through song

The best ingredients of an unforgettable St. John’s experience include opera nights in the Met through the Honors Program.

It is Tuesday night, well after 11 p.m., and several St. John’s students can be identified amid a hushed crowd watching an opera being performed just a couple of balconies below in the Metropolitan Opera.

It is the dress rehearsal of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. The performance is in its fourth act, a point of major tension, as the two lovers Aida, the Ethiopian slave, and Radam√®s, the Egyptian warrior, have just been imprisoned in a tomb, and their lives are reaching their end.

Together with the orchestral accompaniment, conducted by Daniele Gatti, the singers’ voices reflect the tragedy of this crucial moment.

This is just one of the scenarios of how a student’s late Tuesday night, or any other night, might look like, if he or she forms part of the St. John’s Honors Program.

Students thirsty for a richer academic experience, one that extends beyond the classroom, can attend a whole range of exciting events such as Great Book Discussions, Manhattan Walking Tours, Uncommon Hours, Classical Myth Goes Hollywood Film Series and softball games.

The Honors Program evolved from the St. John’s College of Liberal Arts. Over the past years, however, an increasing effort has been made by the Honors Department to extend the curriculum to comprise courses offered by other St. John’s Schools. Hence, the Honors Program became a university-wide program only seven years ago.

Similarly, services like free opera, Philharmonic or ballet tickets date back to 2006. Each year, the Honors Department requests 40 tickets for certain Metropolitan Opera events at a very reduced price.

These tickets are then offered free of charge to Honors’ students. Students rush to obtain one. Usually, the tickets sell out within 24 hours of their release. Approximately 1,350 students are enrolled in the program.

“These events suppose the most spectacular of New York’s classic productions,” said Dr. Robert Foman, the director of the Honors Program.

The Honors Department chooses the classic New York City events for students to attend, like Aida or Balanchine’s ballet The Nutcracker. They are the must-sees of New York’s performances.

They have been on stage for decades. In this way, students might be able to bring in “something else” to class, and relate this new knowledge with syllabus material.

For instance, they might find a similarity in the tragic fate of Aida, to that of Antigone, in Sophocles’ Antigone, even though the two plays are not connected in any way. “It is a stretching of the mind”.

By offering free tickets to students, the Honors Department hopes to give students the possibility to attend events they might have not been able to attend otherwise.

Indeed, when asked, many students confirm that Aida has been the first opera they have seen in their lives.

The Honors Program not only acts as a force that expands the students’ horizons, but also, as a force that incites self-discovery.

All this, the seminar-like, multidisciplinary structure and the events sponsored by the Honors Program, highlight the dedication of the faculty to their students.

Honors students are taught in small classes (usually around 20 students each) that approach an academic topic from an unusual angle. For instance, this year’s Honors Global Literature 2150C course approaches literature by exploring its connections with the ocean.

Such uniqueness, an unusual approach to academics, and the cultural experiences show he best of St. John’s University and New York City to the students.