The catacombs at Green-Wood cemetery, which hold the remains of 30 New York City families, will become a makeshift opera house beginning in June.
Only darkness and candlelight will envelop visitors as the city’s top opera and chamber music ensembles deliver emotional performances.
Dubbed “The Angel’s Share” — taken from the distiller’s term for the fraction of spirits that evaporates or is “given to the angels” when they’re being made — the concert series will include snacks and whiskey tastings at sunset before the audience walks down winding paths to the catacombs, according to Andrew Ousley, the show’s curator.
The hourlong concerts will hold small musical groups and audiences, because of the limited space in the catacombs. Built in the 1850s for families who wanted to be laid to rest indoors but couldn’t afford mausoleums, the catacombs encompass a 160-foot-long hallway that is 12 feet across. Each side of the hallway contains 15 family vaults, where more than a dozen corpses can fit inside the walls.
The most famous resident is Ward McAllister, an arbiter of Manhattan’s social scene in the Gilded Age who originated the phrase “the Four Hundred,” or the 400 families who could fit inside the Astor ballroom and were thereby deemed social elites, according to Harry Weil, the cemetery’s program manager.
The hallway, which is lined with his and others’ names inscribed on marble slabs, will be candlelit for the event. And while it may be a dark and confined space, its “long barrel” shape lends to an experience that you won’t find in the city’s classic performance venues, both Ousley and Weil said.
“The nature of the space’s sound and intimacy creates a very open environment for people to sit for an hour and take in a piece of music or a performance,” Ousley said. “It can be a different approach for people who don’t know or care about classical music.”
Each performance uses very few theatrics and includes music that is meant to create a visceral, emotional response for listeners, Ousley said.
He’s curated three seasons of similar performances inside the crypt of the Church of the Intercession in Harlem, which sold out in under two minutes, he said.
Ousley is a rocker by nature and said he once felt like an outsider to the classical and opera music genres, but now that he’s passionate about it, he wants to create a welcoming format for others… and he’s not afraid of what lies beyond the catacombs’ walls, either.
“I’ve gotten over it,” he said. “I spend a lot of time in crypts and catacombs — I don’t think of this as disturbing the dead or a disrespecting of the space. It’s a celebration of life and acknowledging life is short. I think that what we all hope when we lose people we love that there is still something more that connects us. That’s part of what’s at the core of ‘Angel’s Share’ — that we share that connection and reinforce it.”
Here’s a look at the lineup of Unison Media’s “The Angel’s Share”:
“The Rose Elf” (singers with a small orchestra)
June 6, 8 and 10
David Hertzberg and director R.B. Schlather weave a tale of two lovers who are torn apart by an act of violence and a strange being who witnesses it and is transformed.
“The Sacred and the Profane” (harp and strings)
Harpist-slash-rockstar Bridget Kibbey brings a haunting program to the catacombs, accompanied by a team string players, performing Debussy’s “Sacred and Profane Dances,” to Bach’s “Toccata” and “Fugue in D Minor” and to the grand finale, André Caplet’s “Conte Fantastique.”
“An American in Paris” (piano)
Twin sister piano duo Christina and Michelle Naughton celebrate Green-Wood resident Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday with a program featuring his work and that of American and French composers, including Ravel and Debussy.
“Modern Medieval” (string ensemble)
The JACK Quartet is an adventurous string ensemble, having played in the dark and on a raft in a lake, that will follow a musical thread from medieval plainsong to present day to show similarities between works and genres.
“Sketches from ‘Frankenstein” (piano and voice)
For the 200th anniversary of “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, pianist/composer Gregg Kallor will debut his new suite of operatic sketches based on the tale with On Site Opera. Kallor has also created a musical version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and will premiere a solo piano piece dedicated to Leonard Bernstein.
Tickets, which are $80, are available at deathofclassical.com.