“Everything is in constant change, but this basilica has been and remains a constant, an anchor,” Martin Scorsese says in The Oratorio: a Documentary with Martin Scorsese, which airs tomorrow on PBS. “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, for me, has always been synonymous with America itself—America at its very best.”
The basilica in question is St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Little Italy, the original cathedral of the Archdiocese of New York and the second-oldest Catholic church in Manhattan. It was built in 1815 by Joseph Francois Mangin, the architect who designed City Hall, and was the largest Catholic church in the U.S. at the time. As the documentary explains, the area was populated mainly by Irish immigrants before it became Little Italy. Though the Irish and Italians differ in many ways, the church witnessed many marriages between them. It also served as the filming location for the baptism scene in The Godfather.
But the documentary concerns itself in particular with one very special night at the cathedral: a one-night-only opera performance that took place there in 1826, marking the arrival of Italian opera in the fledgling United States. It tells the story of the incredible characters behind the church and the performance, including Pierre Toussaint (a freed slave who became a society hairdresser and was the church’s original benefactor), Lorenzo Da Ponte (Mozart’s librettist, who after being banished from Vienna ended up as a grocer in Little Italy), and Maria Malibran (opera’s first diva).
Long lost to the annals of history, the original Oratorio was rediscovered by the cathedral’s current musical director and organ master, Jared Lamenzo, who teamed up with opera theater director Claudio Orazi and musicologist Francesco Zimei to restage the 1826 performance in 2018. Scorsese has a strong personal connection to the church — he grew up around the corner and was an altar boy there.
The Oratorio: A Documentary with Martin Scorsese premieres on PBS at 9 p.m. on Friday, November 5, and will be followed immediately afterward by Da Ponte’s Oratorio: A Concert for New York. Watch an exclusive clip here and tune in tomorrow on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video app.