Singing for the Pope in New York

Salvatore Diana reflects on the lights, camera, action, and everything behind it

Singing for the Pope is a once-in-a-lifetime experience – though sometimes, it happens twice.

“I can’t say it was my first time singing for a pope,” admits Salvatore Diana. “I had the good fortune of Singing for Pope Benedict when he visited eight years ago.” In fact, Diana sang in services for Pope Francis on back-to-back days during his visit to New York, making for a hectic and thrilling 36 hours or so. 

Diana has been a singer with the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir for around 10 years, and is the co-founder and president of the New York-based professional chamber vocal ensemble The Salvatones. He is also a veteran of Chorus America’s Chorus Management Institute (CMI) faculty, having taught several iterations of the program’s marketing component.

What’s it like from the singer’s vantage point to perform for a pope? Diana shared his take on the events of Pope Francis’ visit.

Q: Which groups did you sing with in each of the Papal events?

A: The Thursday evening Vespers service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was with the Cathedral choir, which sings together every Sunday, September through June.

For the following evening for Mass at Madison Square Garden (MSG), it was a combination of two groups; the Cathedral choir merging with the Archdiocesan Festival Chorale, which is a group of singers that come together from throughout the Archdiocese to perform at different archdiocesan events. That combined ensemble sings together infrequently – only for some major events, which there aren’t too many that warrant that large of a group. But when the Pope is coming to town…yes! You need that size. Especially at Madison Square Garden.

Together [on Friday] it was well over 100 singers. We had some additional singers that were brought in to get us up in the range of forces that we needed to deliver the sound we needed with the orchestra, which was much larger for MSG.

Q: Did the two groups rehearse together, or separately?

A: We did rehearse independently with our own choirs until the week of, and then we had two joint rehearsals.

Q: Take us through the events of those couple days.

For those who were participating in both events, Thursday was somewhat of a marathon day. We had to be at MSG in the morning for a 3 1/2-hour rehearsal onsite so that we could get all the logistics in place and get used to singing in that space. And then we had to hightail it on the subway – because with the Pope’s arrival, a lot of streets were being closed, and we couldn’t take ground transportation – so an entire choir had to take the subway.

Salvatore Diana
Salvatore Diana

But on the way, we were flagged down by Inside Edition. CBS had been doing a spot on the rehearsals and the preparations, so they had been in MSG. Literally, as we were all trying to enter the subway, they said, “We want to do a quick spot on the choir.” We had to plant ourselves outside of Penn Station and sing a piece, and our director got interviewed, impromptu. Then we said, “Ok, we have to go – now (laughs).”

And we hightailed it over to the cathedral, which involved having to take the subway well past where we normally would – due to closures by the Secret Service – and entering the Palace Hotel to go through security. Then we entered the site so we could eat a bit of lunch very quickly and prepare for a prelude concert that started at 4:00, which lasted an hour and a half, and had a wee break to get ourselves situated in the gallery for the Pope’s arrival for Vespers (and then Vespers). So that was a pretty-actioned packed, marathon kind of day. And you definitely start to feel the energy waning a little bit, but it’s amazing – despite how tired people were, the moment he set foot in the door, the adrenaline just takes over. It’s quite a thing to be part of.

And the next day we had [Mass at] MSG, so we had to be there pretty early. They wanted all the people involved in the production to be there very early because they were going to be dealing with all of the public that were going to be coming through security. There were some 25,000 people attending that service, so getting them all through security at MSG took quite a bit. They fed us, which is always important for performers. We got to have some cool backstage moments. There was a pre-Mass concert with some big-name performers (such as Jennifer Hudson and Kelli O’Hara) – we got to see them as they walked by. They were very gracious and they let us take selfies.

Q: Was there anything unexpected that happened that you had to adjust to in the moment?

A: The MO that we all had to operate under was to be prepared for anything and to be flexible. We rehearsed quite a bit of music, and our director was quite candid that things could change. Even when we were rehearsing, things were changing, pieces were being cut, things were being added and changed. We needed to just embrace this sense of flexibility and accommodation with logistics and the performance as well – in terms of what time we were supposed to show up to places, and where. We didn’t know until practically the day before. MSG is a pretty big place and none of us had ever performed there before, so where does one enter as one is performing? Things like that.

If it were just a performance of all these people, that would be a logistical headache in and of itself, but when you’re adding on Secret Service, and high security to all of this it kind of takes on another flavor. And you just have to be pretty understanding of that and go with the flow.

In terms of the performance itself, we also had to be ready to just skip things or add something or move something around. That happened in both services. There were a couple pieces at both events that we didn’t end up doing. Some things were meant to occur as part of different moments or periods of time, and we just didn’t need them. Of course when you work on pieces you want to perform them! It can be a little disappointing, but you’re still sort of caught up in the whole moment, and you go with it.

At MSG, we were so far away from the conductor. It’s not like she could neatly communicate with us when things were changing, so they had made signs with all the titles of the pieces on them that were huge. They would be lifting them up to say what the next thing was that we would be doing. They were these huge cue cards, essentially.

Q: How does this experience compare to other high-profile events you have been part of as a singer in New York?

A: One of the things that is part of our role as the Cathedral choir is that we are televised frequently. We have to be sensitive – usually we’re performing in a liturgical capacity. You’re really there in a capacity to support the service, but you still need to be sensitive to being on camera. You can’t look into the camera, but you have to present yourself visually because television is a visual medium. While most of the brain cells are engaged on delivering the music, a few brain cells need to be sensitive to the fact that you may have a camera on you. And sometimes these cameras can get up really close for a close shot – you’ll be looking out at the conductor and out of your peripheral vision you’ll see this guy with a shoulder cam coming up right up practically to your chin. And you really shouldn’t move at that point (laughs). If someone is coming up to you, you kind of want to turn toward them, but you have to have that awareness.

So we (the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir) are sort of used to that because we have that experience every year – but for example, for the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, we only have one news station up there. For Pope Francis, there were cameramen from as many networks as you could mention. They were everywhere – there were probably cameramen that we couldn’t even see. So you have that going on in the background…and the Pope is here (laughs).

After the service, my phone was just blown up with Facebook messages of people who had seen me on television. And that story was repeated throughout the choir with different friends and coworkers and family members who had taken screen grabs or photos of their television sets and posted them on Facebook. You’ll see your face there singing with CNN on the bottom, or MSNBC, you know. Especially if you’re not a full-time singer – some people do this part-time professionally as a vocation, or as an avocation – if you work at a different place and people don’t know [that you sing], suddenly you’re getting emails and texts from people who see this different side of you that they didn’t know about.

St. Patrick's organist
One of many screen grabs that friends took while Diana was singing, this one of St. Patrick's associate director of music and Salvatones colleague Daniel Brondel.


Q: Is there a memorable moment that sticks out for you?

A: We were getting ready to start the Vespers. We were ready with our first piece for his arrival (the opening movement of Mozart’s Vespers). There are these huge television screens on most of the columns, so we could see the motorcade coming and the Pope nearing. We know by the shops that we see behind him how close he’s getting. There’s that sense of anticipation. You could just hear the din of noise, people cheering and yelling, it was growing louder and louder as he approached.

The protocol is that as soon as he steps foot in the door, we are to begin the music – our director has one eye on the video screen, trying to cue the entire orchestra and choir to begin. It’s amazing – with the Cathedral filled with probably with 2,000 people at least, it was like a hush fell over the crowd. It was the most silent I’ve ever heard the Cathedral. And those big bronze doors of the Cathedral cut out a lot of sound so you really couldn’t hear what was going on outside until they opened them, and then you just hear this wall of sound and people cheering. And then you see him set foot inside the door and the conductor gives that downbeat, and the whole place just erupts. It’s a moment of electricity that I’ve rarely experienced. You just feel the energy in the entire space.

Q: What kind of personal and/or spiritual significance does this experience hold for you?

A: I am Catholic, I grew up Catholic and I’ve been singing in Catholic churches probably since I was 10. That is rewarding in and of itself to be part of the liturgy from a musical perspective, so then to be able to do that for the Pope, it’s really kind of the ultimate experience. Savoring the moment on so many different levels – spiritually, musically – definitely added to the experience.

Mike Rowan is communications manager at Chorus America.