COVID-19

A short-lived opera house goes on the market

In the fall of 2016, when longtime opera singer Anne-Julia Audray and her husband purchased the former Southold Methodist Church, her dreams for the future of the building were very ambitious

She envisioned master classes in singing, piano and violin, along with yearly concerts and the staging of operas, such as Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” — an opera she knows well, having sung the “Queen of the Night” aria many times at opera houses around the world.

Seated at a long table in a side room of the former church on a recent afternoon, the soft light streaming through south-facing windows, her voice rises and falls as she sings a well-known part of the aria, which has been described as one of the most challenging in all of opera.

Perhaps Ms. Audray’s biggest dream for the property, which includes the mid-19th-century church and parsonage on Main Road in Southold hamlet, was creating a college of music there, where students could earn a degree in singing and be taught by the finest instructors.

“This would have been the most perfect place for students to come and live here and study opera and earn a degree,” she said. “It would be like Juilliard, only right here in Southold.

“And with the parsonage next door,” she added, “a number of students could have studied and lived here. It would have added so much to Southold and to the music world.”

The entrance to the Southold Opera House. (Credit: Steve Wick)

Her dreams for the property, which she and her husband, Olivier Chazareix, purchased from the Methodist Church for a little over $1 million, have been dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The viral wrecking ball has taken 400,000 American lives, sent millions into unemployment, destroyed businesses big and small across the country — and now dashed the hopes of two music lovers who believed Southold and the former church would be the perfect place for a sophisticated music center.

“This virus,” Ms. Audray said in a rich French accent, “has done so much damage, here and everywhere else.”

Today, the church and parsonage are listed for sale at $3.3 million. A tour of the property showcases everything extraordinary about it: the stained-glass windows in the front of the church, where pews were rearranged for opera goers and the altar repurposed as a stage; a large, high-ceilinged room behind it, complete with a remodeled kitchen; and a large basement, which houses both a library and a ballet studio complete with a wall of mirrors.

The parsonage next door, which had seen better days before the couple’s arrival, has been beautifully redone, with restored original wide oak flooring that dates to the 1840s. After purchasing the property, the couple spent well over $1 million more on renovations, upgrading wiring and plumbing, replacing floor beams and modernizing bathrooms and bedrooms.

It was all for the goal of establishing an opera house where none had been before.

The former Southold United Methodist Church was refashioned into the Southold Opera House in 2016. (Credit: Steve Wick)

Before the pandemic struck last winter, Ms. Audray estimated she had about 75 students, ranging in age from as young as 7 to a 98-year-old woman who had dreamed all her life of taking singing lessons.

“She took lessons for about a year and flourished. She found she had a beautiful voice,” Ms. Audray said, adding that her elderly student died in 2018. 

As the pandemic dug in last winter, there was no way to continue any sort of gatherings for concerts or teaching. Singing, Ms. Audray explained, is considered a superspreader activity. Zoom classes were out of the question.

“How could anyone teach singing on Zoom and charge for it?” she asked. “That wouldn’t work at all.”

She thought they might be able to start up again this spring, but recent news of COVID-19 surging have dashed any hopes of that, made all the worse by a slow rollout of the vaccine. She doesn’t think even next fall would be a possible opening target.

Hence, the decision to sell. Once it is sold, she said, she and her husband will likely move into Manhattan. Ultimately, she added, they would like to return to France, where both were born and grew up and where from childhood on she took singing lessons in the finest conservatories.

“Maybe we will find an old property we can renovate,” she said. “I would hope to start a school on the property and invite some of my former students from here to come over. That would be nice.”

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