In 2013, Academy of Sacred Drama founder Jeremy Rhizor entered his final year in the Historical Performance program at The Juilliard School. The academic year before, he had discovered the sadly neglected world of sacred drama and began to brainstorm how he might be able to champion the revival of the genre.
Of immediate interest was the Baroque oratorio genre that draws its stories from Biblical tales and the lives of the saints. Oratorio libretti tell stories that generally would have been familiar to European contemporaries regardless of their beliefs. Along with a musical presentation, oratorios would incorporate a sermon to further stimulate listeners in their intellectual and spiritual lives, and often-times there was also a reception.
Rhizor proposed to create a Baroque-style Academy for the present day in the style of the Arcadian Academy—a Roman society dedicated to the reformation of poetry that brought together leading musical and visual artists as well as noblemen and church leaders. Through a concerted effort on the parts of musicians, scholars, and prominent members of the community, the stories of sacred drama could come alive for audiences of today.
And so the Academy of Sacred Drama was formed. We seek to revive one of humanity’s great art forms present in rituals, in liturgy, and on stage. By doing so, we intend to restore the sacred drama genre as a vehicle for the formation of common values, community and individual identity, and creative virtue.
The Early Days
As a first effort towards that end, Rhizor took little-know oratorios that already had editions and English translations by Charpentier, Scarlatti, Pasquini, and Stradella and performed them in readings for small invited audiences of friends. Louise Basbas (of Music Before 1800) contributed many of the editions, and Alessandro Quarta (of Concerto Romano) also contributed his edition for Pasquini’s La sete di Cristo. All the musicians volunteered their time, and audience members contributed food toward potluck dinners that preceded the performances.
It was a time for experimentation. The Academy’s first performance of Charpentier’s Mors Saülis et Jonathae was paired with a lecture about genetic ethics by a Columbia University professor. One of the oratorio readings featured a social game built off of the story of the libretto. Insight into another oratorio libretto was enabled through written reflections on the text by some of the invited listeners.
Forming an Organization
The Academy’s exploration of the oratorio genre was made possible through the efforts of dozens of volunteers and thousands of volunteer hours. However, it was now time to bring the Academy to a new level organizationally. In 2017, a promotional video was produced, a board was assembled, and the Academy of Sacred Drama Ltd became a not-for-profit corporation in the State of New York and was federally recognized as a tax-exempt public charity under IRC Section 501 (c) (3).
The Academy Players, the Academy’s core instrumental ensemble consisting of Rhizor, Chloe Fedor, Arnie Tanimoto, Elliot Figg, and (later) Marc Bellassai, began to be presented by organizations throughout the United States. The Academy Journal, a print and digital publication edited by Kate Bresee, was started in an effort to immerse members more deeply in the themes of the oratorios. Editions and translations began to be made for all of the oratorios. Most of the Academy’s major performances began to be modern or American premieres of incredible music that, in many cases, had not been heard in over 300 years.
At the core of the Academy was a paid membership consisting of interested members of the community, and a membership of professionals that included musicians and scholars. Supported by memberships, donations, outside presenters, and ticket sales, the Academy produced a heroic output on the budget of a fledgling organization.
A Rebirth of Sacred Drama
The 2017–2018 season featured oratorios and cantatas about the Book of Judith’s heroine. The Academy performed the modern premiere of Freschi’s Giuditta in New York City in 2017. And in the spring of 2018, in a service modeled after the empress dowager’s oratorio services, the Academy presented the American premiere of Antonio Draghi’s Oratorio di Giuditta at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music in New Haven, CT and in New York City. The New York performance was listed by The New York Times as one of the top performances of that week. The season closed with two very different French cantate by Jacquet de La Guerre and de Brossard based on the same text by Antoine Houdar de La Motte.
2018–2019 featured an epic cycle depicting the life of Moses by the Modenese librettist Giovanni Battista Giardini. The modern premiere of Il Nascimento di Mose by de Grandis in New York and Connecticut was followed by the modern premiere of La creatione de’ magistrati by Gianettini on the Music Before 1800 concert series. Audiences also witnessed the American premiere of I fatti di Mosè nel deserto, another oratorio in the cycle by Pasquini. The season was rounded out by a salon featuring Moses-themed cantate of the French Baroque by Jacquet de La Guerre and de Bousset.
2019–2020 saw a switch from a biblical themed season to a season featuring works by Antonio Gianettini, the once-celebrated composer of Baroque oratorio and opera. A private performance of excerpts from rare and extraordinary sacred dramatic music for an elite New York audience was followed by the American premiere of L’huomo in bivio and the modern premiere of La vittima d’amore, osia La morte di Cristo. The Academy singers and continuo team spent time in residence at Avaloch Farm Music Institute to prepare for the season through rehearsals with Rhizor and movement workshops with Tony Lopresti. Lopresti is a classically-trained mime who brought movement and gesture to the season’s performances.
Looking to the Future
The Academy is once again at a critical juncture where the quality of performance is world-class, and the sacred dramatic works being uncovered can be heard nowhere else. The institution is ready to grow into a mature organization. New board members from institutions such as JP Morgan and the NY Philharmonic have been recruited to enrich the existing board. The Academy Journal, made for a general readership, is transitioning into the Sacred Drama Journal, a peer-reviewed publication for academic articles and translations of sacred drama. New visual elements such as projection are being considered to complement the success of added gesture and movement.
We will soon need to make our first commercial recording and recruit artist management companies to enable our work to be heard in cities across the world. Other videography projects for television are being considered. Internally, efforts are being made to increase the effectiveness of staff and volunteers and to recruit new staff members.
Meanwhile, the 2020–2021 season will feature the music of Antonio Caldara—one of the Baroque era’s great oratorio composers. His Il martirio di santa Caterina (1708) and Madalena à Piedi di Christo (1697) will be presented in their American premieres. Additionally, the Academy will throw its first party (an Italian masquerade) as a fundraiser to mark Carnival and the beginning of Lent.
The 2021–2022 season will feature a return to biblical themes with oratorio libretti inspired by the Book of Genesis. The season’s offerings will include Caldara’s La Morte d’Abel (1732), Scarlatti’s Agar et Ismaele esiliati (1683), and Caldara’s Gioseffo che interpreta i sogni (1726). Additionally, the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary will be presented in an interdisciplinary performance combining movement and excerpts from Baroque cantatas and motets.
Over time, we intend to grow to the point where we can inspire a robust calendar of sacred drama across the world and support full time staff and musicians—a steep goal for an organization of its type in the United States. That goal would indeed be too steep if the need for an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual encounter with the sacred stories of antiquity was not so great.
We believe that, in the highly individualistic and isolated conditions of our world, a renewed communal celebration of the year through the calendar of sacred drama is a much-needed foundation on which to reevaluate and cherish our place in the world. In responding to that human need, the Academy will continue to champion the art form that can best heal the wounds of isolation and spiritual desolation and bring sacred drama once again to the forefront of humanity’s cultural efforts.