by William Sertl
The North Fork has almost 40 wineries, many more farmstands, and one opera house.
Enter Anne-Julia Audray, who bought the 19th Century Methodist church in Southold two years ago and made the old sanctuary sing, often with the angelic voices of kids, teenagers, and a handful of adults who’ve signed up for professional voice lessons, as well as with concerts, master classes, and Saturday afternoon choir rehearsals. And of course opera: The Merry Widow last New Year’s Eve; La Bohême this fall.
“I am a real French diva,” she says at our first meeting, with a soaring hand and a melodious flourish of “do re me fa sol … .”
A graduate of the prestigious Paris Conservatory of music and dance, Ms. Audray has sung onstage for 26 years, “almost every day.” All over the world, at the fabled Palais Garnier, the iconic Beaux Arts pile that for many will always be the Paris opera house, and at the Opéra Bastille, where productions now take place.
Three years ago, while living in New York with her husband, Olivier Chazareix, Ms. Audray was looking for a place to host a salon musical. After reading that the Archdiocese of New York was selling some of its properties, she had an idea. But the churches of her dreams were all too expensive. Reality dictated a wider search of the entire state of New York.
“I found a place for $50,000, way up north near the Canadian border, but I did not want to sing in the cold,” she says.
After refining the search to Long Island, Ms. Audray found what she wanted right on the Main Road in Southold, with the right price ($1 million), where her vocal chords would not freeze.
“I saw the church, and it was love at first sight,” she says.
The Southold Opera Company was born, complete with a parsonage for her five children, ages 20 to 30, who’ve left the nest but visit frequently.
“It is impossible to think of me as having a child that old, n’est ce pas? (see “real French diva.”)
I had never been to the North Fork,” she says. “I knew the Hamptons, where I have performed many times.”
Before signing on the dotted line, she sang in the church to test it. Acoustics perfect. And began to count the other blessings.
“I love the sea. The nature all around. The small town look. And the Jitney stops just outside.”
While Southold Opera does produce a few professional operas—drawing on the resources of the 70-year-old Long Island Opera company, which, as president, Ms. Audray runs from her office in Manhattan—voice lessons are the core of what she does.
“I have been singing and teaching ever since I was 19; I do not want to sing professionally anymore. Too demanding,” she says.
Speaking of demanding, here’s Ms. Audray at her class for pre-teens. To a fidgety guy: “Do not look at your watch. Do not play with your belt.” To a fidgety girl: “Mademoiselle, put yours shoes back on. Do you think you can perform on stage with your shoes off?”
To another boy: “Are you chewing gum? Take it out now. And where are you going to put it? Under the bench? Non! Go to the bathroom now. Run.”
When the fidgety girl protests that she might have lost her voice, Ms. Audray is unsympathetic, asking, “Where do you think you left it?”
French diva? Or French nun?
“Miss Anne-Julia is so nice, but if you text in class, she’ll scream at you,” says Alexander Kennedy, 10, who says he loves singing but might want to be an actor in the end.
Fourteen-year-old Juliet Rand says that when Ms. Audray is strict “I know it’s for my own good. She delivers criticism very well. She has high expectations but is fair and reasonable. She lets you sing and have fun, too, which is what we all like.”
Rand wants to get into the Julliard School at Lincoln Center, and says that studying with Ms. Audray, an alumnus herself, is one way to get there.
Another way is via the Audray School for Singing in Manhattan, devoted to training serious professionals looking for careers in music. That will also be the goal at a July summer camp in Southold, with students from all over New York State and France.
“You cannot come unless you can read music,” says Ms. Audray.
Whose idea was it for Juliet to take Ms Audray’s class?
“All mine,” Juliet says, but her mom, Heather Rand, adds, “I couldn’t believe my luck when Southold Opera opened. No more driving to western Suffolk every week.”
Whose idea was it for James DiBartolo, 14, to take Audray’s class? “To be honest, Mom’s, but now I’m so glad,” he says. “I want to sing and play bass guitar, maybe in a band when I get older. I just need to practice on a more regular basis.”
His mom, Laurie DiBartolo, who has been teaching piano on the North Fork for 20 years, also had a role in the production of The Merry Widow last year.
“Yup, I was there,” she says, “ironing the costumes backstage and helping with make-up” after answering an emergency call-to-arms just before opening night.
Claire Kennedy was also helping out backstage and says her son Alexander’s classes “were a 50/50 decision between parents and child.”
Husband and father Tom Kennedy says he and Claire “cherish the time and experience Anne-Julia is providing for Alexander and the kids. Even if he doesn’t end up singing professionally, the classes will never have been a waste of time.”
On the subject of practicing, the Gospel according to Audray condemns those who don’t practice to Musical Hell; even to those who are simply guilty of not practicing enough. The young kids also learn that they must open their mouths, project, and sing, sing, sing.
“What would you do with a tiny voice if you were in front of an audience of 5,000, as I was in Moscow?” she says. “Go home?”
They also need to learn to think as if they are not in America but in Italy when singing Caro Mio Ben.
“CAH-ro, CAH-ro, CAH-ro,” she demands. Not “CAR-o.”
One kid finally gets it: “Oh, like “car” in New England.”
With the kids and teens, Audray says her reward is seeing a student get into a good school or snag a major role. That happened four years ago, when one of her students, Andrew Pulver, won a lead part in the Metropolitan Opera’s debut of Two Boys.
“But I love teaching adults, too,” she says. Some—in their 40s, 50s, 60s— come with “beautiful voices and just need a tune-up. I am their vocal garage.”
Others say they always wanted to sing but didn’t think they could.
“I tell them, if you have two undamaged vocal chords, you can sing.”
Evie Bergen has sung in a choir most of her life, but she says she never got around to taking voice lessons until now.
“I’m 97. Don’t you think it’s about time?”
For another adult student, Tom Kennedy, Audray provides a kind of community connection he says you don’t find much anymore, adding “her passion alone is inspiring.”
According to the kids, so is her voice: “We love to hear her sing in class,” says James.
“We beg her to sing,” says Juliet. “Her voice is remarkable.”
For Ms. Audray, that coloratura soprano voice rang out most brilliantly about 15 years ago while performing with a small orchestra in the glorious royal chapel of Saint-Chapelle on the Ile de la Cité in the heart of Paris.
“I was singing Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate,” she says. “For the cadenza near the end, my voice began to soar, it became free, as if it was independent of my body, as if I were listening to someone else. It was the first time I truly loved my voice with no reservations. That was my last concert. I literally went out on a high note.”
William Sertl was the travel editor of Gourmet until its closure in 2009, and worked as an editor for Saveur and Travel & Leisure. A native of St. Louis, he escaped to New York early and is now hiding out in Cutchogue, where he swims in the bay, bikes to King Kullen, and does yoga.