The Angel's Share production of Dido & Aeneas at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. (Courtesy of Unison Media/Kevin Condon)
NEW YORK - Usually, if you find yourself in a cemetery at night, and you don't work there, you're either trespassing or dead. But for the next few months, you can legally hang out in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery to sip whiskey and experience live music and opera underground, literally.
The Angel's Share, now in its second season, is staging four nights of the opera Henry Purcell's Dido & Aeneas in the cemetery's catacombs this week. The production features 10 singers and a six-piece Baroque chamber orchestra. (The season continues with live chamber music; see below.)
And if seeing opera more than six feet under doesn't excite you enough, each night includes a pre-show sunset reception and whiskey tasting on the grounds of the historic cemetery with a view of the Manhattan skyline and New York Harbor.
Andrew Ousley is the founder and artistic director of Death of Classical, a nonprofit that produces The Angel's Share and also presented the well-received Crypt Sessions in the Crypt Chapel under the Church of the Intercession in Harlem. Ousley is also the president of Unison Media, which promotes and markets classical musicians and performing arts organizations. So you could say he wears several hats for his own projects.
I asked Ousley about the genesis of The Angel's Share and its unique challenges.
Where did the idea to stage performances in under a cemetery come from?
OUSLEY: After a flurry of media coverage on our first concert series, The Crypt Sessions, Harry Weil from Green-Wood reached out to me about their Catacombs, asking if I'd be interested in curating a series there. The initial idea for the Crypt Sessions came to me the moment I first set foot in the space and was just completely in awe of the atmosphere, energy, and acoustics of the space.
What are some of the challenges of producing shows in the catacombs?
OUSLEY: In order of difficulty: Lack of power (we use a generator), lack of climate control (it fluctuates wildly in there), unusual layout (we make a lot of use of the tombs that line the main tunnel of the Catacombs), and spiders (we just close our eyes and go to our happy place).
How is the experience of seeing these shows different from more conventional live music and opera?
OUSLEY: It's a completely transformative space, and it makes for an utterly unique experience for the audience. It forces you to confront your mortality, not in a morbid way, but in a way that makes you appreciate the moments that we're given, and that we share with others. I choose programs that speak to elements of life that are more than the sum of their parts: mystery, transcendence, faith, grief, wonder, hope, and then we work to create an evening that centers around a highly-focused musical experience that we hope will stay with listeners long after it's over.
What's your musical background?
OUSLEY: I grew up in Manhattan and played in rock bands most of my life, but my late mother was an opera singer who first introduced me to classical music and opera via the immortal Maria Callas. I took a bunch of classical music classes in college but then found a job at a classical record label just as the entire industry began to collapse. After 10 years of that madness, I started my own business and six months later was producing concerts in crypts, and the rest is history.
Dido & Aeneas runs June 4–8, 7–10 p.m. If you miss this round, the season continues with three productions of chamber music:
- Augusta McKay Lodge and Voyage Sonique, Epilogues and Epitaphs, June 24–26
- Adam Tendler and Jenny Lin, Liszt: Poetic and Religious Harmonies, Sept. 24–27
- String Orchestra of Brooklyn, Pergolesi: Stabat Mater, Oct. 8–10
Tickets are $85 and include the sunset whiskey tasting.
Founded in 1838, Green-Wood Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark, remains an active burial ground. You can access its main entrance at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street in Brooklyn.
Arun Kristian Das is a senior digital content creator for Fox5NY.com and an occasional mentor, teacher, and coach. He has lived most of his life in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @arunwithaview.