NAUGATUCK — He spent four years at the renowned Juilliard School in Manhattan, and upon graduation he toured the world, performing as a baritone on the most prestigious opera stages in Europe, Asia and North America.
On Sept. 25, Michael Barakat came back to perform where his career began, in the music room at Naugatuck High School. The 1996 NHS graduate urged students to follow their dreams, their passions and, most of all, their hearts.
“When someone said I should apply to Juilliard, I said, ‘I might be good for Naugatuck High School, but Juilliard is just a different level,’” he told students. “They said, ‘Well what do you have to lose?’”
Eighteen years later, Barakat, now 36, can honestly say he has no regrets about his musical career, or his decision to launch a new career in education some 12 years ago. Barakat became a music teacher in the Bronx, and worked his way to principal of Bronx High School for Law and Community Service. He has served in that capacity for the past five years. In that time, he has helped turn the school from one of the city’s worst to one of its best, according to an article in the New York Daily News.
Barakat said he told students on day one as principal that people looked at them as failures and did not believe they could achieve because of where they came from.
“I told them that if that’s how they felt about themselves, I would leave and find another job,” he said. “But they didn’t, and they have worked extremely hard to achieve.”
While music students at Naugatuck High appreciated that message, it was Barakat’s immense musical talents that had them in awe. He performed several songs last week — in both English and Italian — between his inspirational speech for more than 200 students in five class periods.
“It’s great to see somebody who came from our town who was in the exact same position we are,” senior Kaylin Spaulding said. “He wasn’t afraid to go out, to do it. He did it, and he toured in Europe. It’s amazing.”
Senior Sarah Hanks said she never realized anyone from Naugatuck went to Juilliard and is excited to know it is possible to find that level of success.
Senior Anthony Conner said, “You can’t help but to admire his musical capabilities and feel like you want to get to that level one day.”
Mahlon Peterson, director of choirs at NHS, did not have Barakat as a student, but said he brings in professionals once a year so students can experience a different level of music.
“It’s a much different thing hearing a professional than it is hearing most of the students around them,” he said. “And the fact that he’s from here made it a perfect fit.”
Barakat, who had last Thursday off from school for the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah, still performs for audiences once in a while and even sings sometimes in the hallway for students.
“They have these hallways that really echo, so that’s fun,” he quipped.
He lives in Yonkers, N.Y., with his wife and two young children. He said he stopped touring for more stability and because he enjoys education. And he credits much of his success, both in music and in education, to Naugy High.
“I built a foundation at Naugatuck High School,” he said. “It happened right here in this room and it all started at City Hill Middle School. When I went to Juilliard, I was prepared and ahead of the game because of what happened right here at Naugy High.”