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New owner shares vision for Southold church reborn as opera house, manse as B&B, French cafe

Artistic Director Anne-Julia Audray at Southold Opera last summer. SoutholdLOCAL file photo

The first thing Anne-Julia Audray did when she stepped inside the former Southold United Methodist Church on Main Road was sing.

After all, the opera singer and executive director of the Long Island Opera Company said, acoustics are everything.

And soon, the historic church, first erected in 1794 and a beloved home for its congregation for 220 years until it closed its doors last year, will once again reverberate with the sound of joyful music, light pouring through the magnificent stained glass windows.

Audray and her husband Olivier Chazareix, who purchased the parcel for just over $1 million, including the manse and the parking lot, have poured their dreams into the property.

Her hope, Audray said, was to find a theater or similar structure where she could bring members of her company and locals alike to present opera and other musical performances.

The only spaces she could find, however, were Broadway theaters with $13 million price tags or “horrible old movie theaters, moldy and abandoned.”

Soon, she thought of possibly purchasing a church. And so, Audray took to the internet, where she typed in the words “churches for sale in New York.” A sea of entries popped up, including the former Southold United Methodist Church.

“I found this one and said, ‘That’s mine,'” she said; she and her husband came out to see the church that Friday.

It was the first time, she said, that she’d ever heard the word “Southold” or stepped foot on the North Fork.

And yet, her vision for the church has infused the community with a sense of excitement and gratitude, that the church will remain intact, its structure and spire standing tall, stained windows glistening with light, and repairs to the roof the only major renovations needed.

Neighbors have welcomed the idea of an opera house in Southold with open arms, bringing pie and thanks.
Neighbors have welcomed the idea of an opera house in Southold with open arms, bringing pie and thanks.

Sitting at a wrought iron patio table — one of the few pieces of furniture she has right now — on the cozy front porch of the manse, neighbors stop by to introduce themselves and all thank Audray for bringing an opera house to Southold.

Vera Niewenhuis, a photographer who lives next door, stopped by with a pie to welcome the couple to the neighborhood.

“We think what you’re doing is so wonderful,” she told Audray. “My mom loves opera and can’t wait to meet you.”

Surveying Main Street in Southold, Audray’s face lit up with an infectious smile. “I’m so lucky,” she said.

Later that day, Audray welcomed members of her choir to the manse; they later sang in the church.

Down the line, Audray said her vision includes a B&B in the manse, and a French cafe, with guests sipping coffee and eating croissants on an expanded porch.

She’d like to rent dorm space to artists who will come in the summers to perform; she and her husband will reside in the church itself, in an unused space in the back, when they’re not in New York City — where they live right across the street from the Metropolitan Opera House.

Audray said she hopes to offer classes, as well as performances, at the church, and talks of an arts consortium with Southold Town have come up.

Southold Town Supevisor Scott Russell said he and Special Projects Coordinator Phillip Beltz met with Audray.

The opera house, Russell said, is “a great idea, not just for the preservation of the structure but for the vitality of the village. It promotes culture and the arts and I couldn’t be more pleased with the proposal. In fact, after I met with her, I referred her to the town’s economic development committee so that the town can assist in any way we can.”

Russell has long championed the concept of adaptive reuse for area churches; the town has worked on a floating zone that would allow such uses in historic buildings, with the caveat that the facades are preserved.

Beltz agreed that the idea holds great promise. “We think she and her husband have many visionary plans for the opera that will further the vitality of the hamlet center and cultural arts in the Town of Southold.”

The “arts consortium” idea is still being developed by the economic development committee, Beltz said.

While the church is a bit small for full scale sets, Audray is determined to create a haven for musicians in the hamlet. “I’d love to create the Southold Opera House,” she said.

Audray herself has been singing onstage for 28 years; she began “paying the bills” with her talent at only 19 years old, touring the word and performing in France, Russia, and other countries on the European canvas.

Two years ago, she decided to stop traveling and to pursue, instead, her passion for training others.

Whether professional opera singers or beginners, all can gain confidence and enhance their public speaking skills through the vocal training she said. Recently, she even worked to train the French president before an upcoming election. In New York City, she offers training for children and teenagers at the Audray School for Singing.

In Southold, Audray hopes to bring together professional performers and regular community members, sharing, creating a choir and singing songs in different languages.

The hope is to begin to offer programs by next summer, she said.

So far, the church continues to inspire, and all who’ve worked on it so far have said it’s an honor to help breathe new life into such a beautifully constructed piece of Southold history.

Audray said when a piece of ceiling was removed, beautifully painted roses were found underneath. “It’s a total dream,” she said.

And from that first moment when she gave her heart to the church she’d found on the internet, Audray said she’s had no hesitation. “I believe,” she said. “I never think, I just do.”

If she wasn’t fueled by the fire to pursue her dreams, she said, “I would still be a poor girl, living in the French village of my parents.”

Audray said she’s honored to preserve a piece of Southold’s rich past. “This is something we should honor. It’s sacred,” she said. “Not tear it down.”