Opera House in New York: It Starts at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral | THIRTEEN
Christina Chevalier | October 29, 2021
A new PBS documentary reveals how the future of Italian opera in New York City was shaped in 1826 by three immigrants who made a concert possible: a freed slave turned benefactor, opera’s premier diva, and librettist of Mozart.
In The Oratorio, Martin Scorsese reveals the fascinating story of a one-night performance in 1826 at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Scorsese’s childhood church. The concert marked the arrival of Italian opera in the New World. This landmark event was lost in history for almost 200 years, but was recently rediscovered and re-staged by an Italian opera company in the historic church. Exploring the experience of immigrants, the beginning of a cultural awakening in America and the enduring power of art, The Oratorio: a documentary with Martin Scorsese premieres Friday, November 5 at 9 p.m., followed by Da Ponte’s oratorio: a concert for New York at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN and the THIRTEEN Explore and PBS Video apps.
The documentary is populated by unforgettable real characters. There are Lorenzo Da Ponte, the Mozart librettist, who, after being banned from Vienna, ends up in New York. He sometimes worked as a grocer and bookseller while pursuing his musical career in New York. Pierre Toussaint, who was freed from slavery and became a successful barber, was the main benefactor of the construction of the former St. Patrick’s Cathedral, while also leading other charities (he is now venerable in the Catholic Church and is the only layman buried at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue). And Spanish singer Maria malibran, opera’s premier diva, gave performances in New York City that inspired young women to take singing lessons. She died a legend at age 28.
The Oratorio features interviews with opera theater director Claudio Orazi and musicologist Francesco Zimei, who spearheaded efforts to re-stage the oratorio and convince the Italian government to fund the show as a gift to the United States from the Old World . Music director and organ master Jared Lamenzo gives a behind-the-scenes look at the DIY and inventive engineering needed to keep the church going 150 year old organ job.
After the historic performance in 1826, Da Ponte opened the first purpose-built opera house in New York: the Italian opera, in 1833 (read about this and the history of New York opera on the site of the classical music station WQXR.
Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral
The old St. Patrick’s Cathedral stands next to Mott Street, between E. Houston and Prince Streets, partly lined with a brick wall that ripples under the pressure of time. The granite structure was built in 1840 and was the seat of the Archdiocese of New York until the opening of the new St Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan in 1879. Martin Scorcese worshiped at Old St. Patrick’s in his youth. Its current parishioners include Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan, who in the film discuss the role the church and an ever-changing immigrant population play in the surrounding communities of NoLita, SoHo, Little Italy and Chinatown.
“Everything is constantly evolving, but this basilica has been and remains a constant, an anchor,” explains Scorsese. “And it was built by people who flocked here to start a new life in this city. A city where people still come from all over the world. A city that to me has always been synonymous with America itself, America at its best.
Scorsese has a deeply personal connection with the cathedral and its surroundings. He grew up around the corner and served as an altar boy in the two-century-old church where the original staging and re-staging of the oratorio took place. In the documentary, he explores the history of the neighborhood, its transition from Irish to Italian and the incredible influence it has had on “the way I see my world and my work”.
The site of the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral describes its fascinating history.
Da Ponte’s oratorio: a concert for New York
Right after The Oratorio at 10 p.m., Da Ponte’s Oratorio: A Concert For New York presents the Italian opera company Lirico Theater of Cagliari perform the reconstructed concert. Thanks to the meticulous research of the musical director of the Basilica Lamenzo and the Italian musicologist Zimei, the program recreates as closely as possible what was heard in 1826.
The 2018 concert features music by Cimarosa and Zingarelli as well as that of Haydn, Handel and Arne. Maestro Donato Renzetti conducts, with performances by sopranos Francesca Dotto and Salome Jicia, tenor Patrick Kabongo and baritones Pier Luigi Dilengite and Daniele Terenzi.