It may seem foreign to people today, but there was a time when the music we call classical was actually performed by legendary artists like Mozart and Brahms in German beer halls. In its original era, classical music was the folk music — the popular music style — of the day. Hundreds of years later, Father Alphonse Stephenson not only continues the tradition of this great music, but strives to ensure its future as well.
On Sunday, April 6, Father Alphonse will conduct the Orchestra of St. Peter by the Sea at the Algonquin Theatre in Manasquan, NJ at 3pm. The performance will be an encapsulation of some of the most “chilling” moments in opera history. Entitled, “Once Upon An Opera,” the show will highlight works by Giacomo Puccini, composer of “La boheme,” “Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca,” and other masterpieces.
“Madama Butterfly” is an example of works with the type of chilling moments that Stephenson has gathered for the production. “One of the most interesting things about “Madama Butterfly” is that the opera ends with an unresolved chord,” explained Stephenson. “As a result, the whole story is unresolved… It just leaves you hanging.”
Stephenson grew up in Paterson, NJ. His love of classical music came from his grandparents who emigrated from Italy. They would set Stephenson in front of the radio on Saturday afternoons to hear the broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and occasionally head to “The Met” for performances. He would go on to become ordained as a Catholic priest with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson, while continuing his musical education as well, receiving a doctorate of music from Monmouth University. His musical career — as well as his military career — is simply remarkable.
A student of the late George Schick of the Metropolitan Opera and Dr. Robert Abramson of the Juilliard School, Father Alphonse has been guest conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic, Delaware Valley Philharmonic, Metro Lyric Opera, the Greater Palm Beach Symphony Orchestra, and the Key West Pops Orchestra. In addition, in 1980 he was tapped by Michael Bennett to be the conductor and music director of the Broadway hit, “A Chorus Line.”
Equally as impressive is his rise within the military, ultimately reaching the position of Chaplain, Brigadier General and the Air National Guard Assistant to the Air Force Chief of Chaplains at the Pentagon. As he prepares for retirement later in the year, Father Alphonse looks back at his illustrious career.
“I got further in the Air Force than I thought I could ever possibly get,” said Father Alphonse. “It’s been exciting and wonderful all these years. I just got back from a trip to Louisiana where I spoke with bishops about the need for priests in the Army and Air Force National Guard. Hopefully I made my case and they will be on the lookout for younger priests who have a special interest in serving the military.”
He recalled one time the Air Force sent him to the town in which Puccini composed many of his masterpieces. As Father Alphonse strolled around the lake that stands by Villa Puccini, a house the composer had built in 1900, he found himself staring at the trees. “I said to myself, my God… you heard ‘Tosca’ for the first time!” Laughing at the memory, he said, “I was very envious of the trees!”
For Father Alphonse, faith and music hold much in common. Both involve creation, beauty, and require much practice. “Faith is, in fact, an art which needs to be practiced daily,” he said. Sharing music in halls such as the Algonquin Theatre is one of the ways in which he’s able to showcase the art and the beauty it holds.
While he disagrees with the idea that classical music is only for the elites, he understands that not everyone will appreciate it. “Classical music is an art that has to be touched by the senses and if you’re not receptive to those things, you’re probably not going to get it,” he said.
The Cecelia Foundation, an organization started by Father Alphonse over 25 years ago, is another way he strives to keep the music he cherishes alive. The foundation seeks to help those who show promise as musicians by providing instruments and scholarships to aid their ability to practice and learn their craft.
Named after Saint Cecelia, the Patron Saint of musicians, the foundation has given away instruments such as violins, cellos, violas, trombones, and drums over the years. Promising high school students are recommended by their teachers for assistance. Scholarships are provided to those already in college to help pay for their education.
“At 64 years old, I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s time to start paving the way for somebody else,” he continued. “It’s most important that this music not go into the archives.”
That dream will continue on in the years to come. Father Alphonse recently sold his home in Washington, DC and is preparing to return to the Jersey Shore. Music will undoubtedly be part of his future.
Thanks to music and his military career, his life has been filled with many journeys throughout the world; returning home, his dream is to start a new opera company. And so, the journey continues…
Orchestra of St. Peter by the Sea
“Once Upon An Opera”
Conducted by Father Alphonse Stephenson
Sunday, April 6 • 3pm
Premium: $48 (Adults), $46(Seniors), $35 (Students)
Regular: $42 (Adults), $40(Seniors), $30 (Students)
Groups of 10 or more: $33 (Adults/Seniors), $25 (Students)