NEW YORK – While paparazzi and reporters had eyes fixed on the celebrities gracing the red carpet of the Met Gala Monday night, for what’s considered to be the Super Bowl of fashion, a giant non-descript bus backed down, unseen, into the museum’s far less glamorous garage.
The secrecy was necessary to guarantee surprise when the Sistine Chapel choir, comprised of 16 young boys and 10 men, appeared on stage before a dumbstruck and awe-inspired audience of fashion icons and celebrities.
The singers, accustomed to performing for the likes of popes and bishops in the frescoed salas of the Vatican, elevated the tone of the Met Gala and exhibit, which is titled “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.”
“The choir, it was extraordinary beauty,” said John Hale, a member of the Board of Directors of the Vatican’s Patron of the Arts, a chapter-based organization aimed at promoting the restoration of the treasures of the Vatican museums, in a phone interview with Crux.
“For those 20 minutes or so when the choir was performing, the main focus wasn’t the outfits – ridiculous or not – and [attendees] were just focused on something beyond themselves, in fact, someone beyond themselves,” he said.
Hale acted as an agent for the choir and has been in charge of arranging and working out the logistics of their past and future tours of the United States. When the Met organizers approached him last summer to ask about the possibility of a performance for the gala, Hale was hesitant about the occasion.
“I didn’t know how seriously to take it and whether it was something we should be involved with or not,” he said. “But it wasn’t really for me to decide. It was something for the Church to decide.”
In a meeting with the curators of the Met Gala and exhibit, Hale inquired about the logistics of the choir’s performance. Normally the musical part of the event takes place while people are having refreshments and chatting.
“It just wasn’t suitable for the Church and the choir to be singing with people sitting around, half of them with their backs to the performance,” Hale said.
His doubts were resolved once he heard the museum’s proposal – which actually came at considerable expense for the Met – to change the program in a way that had never been done before between the dinner and the cocktail hour.
“I understood that they were serious, because they reimagined the event in a way that would allow for the appropriate respect for the choir to put forth its message most profoundly and most appropriately,” Hale said.
“That was the outcome exactly,” he added.
Having ensured that the socialites and trend-setters would not be distracted, the only thing remaining was to have them be quiet and express the appropriate deference, and who could do that better than Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, and a towering figure at more than six feet tall?
Anna Wintour, editor and chief of Vogue fashion magazine and the host of the event, tapped Dolan with not only introducing the choir but silencing the room.
Dolan told Crux in an interview that Wintour came up to him and said: “You’re the only one that can tell them to be quiet!”
“So, I told them out of respect for the sacred nature of the four selections here, we really want to cultivate an atmosphere of silence, and I’ll be darned, for 15 minutes they were as quiet and as attentive as they could be,” the cardinal said.
The members of the choir performed, dressed in simple and beautiful white and red robes, while images of the Sistine Chapel were projected above them as the guests remained in silent awe. Dolan said he couldn’t help but thinking back on the 2013 conclave and sitting in the Sistine Chapel as the cardinals elected Pope Francis.
“Afterwards, Anna [Wintour] said, ‘I’ve never seen that. Usually they’re kind of boisterous during the entertainment,’” Dolan recalled, adding that for him, it was “just another exhibition of the attentiveness and sensitivity of the evening.”
Wintour also congratulated Hale for the outcome. “She said: ‘John, they were absolutely enthralled with the work. Enthralled,’” he said.
Even members of the choir were pleased by the response and respect.
“Several of them commented on how they just had such smiles,” Hale said. “When I talked to the people who were in the audience, and I talked to the choir members, it seemed like an exchange of great joy.”
Pop singer Rihanna, who was probably wearing one of the most provocative outfits inspired by the night’s theme with a white bejeweled gown fashioned after the pope, was also blown away by the choir performance.
“When I spoke to her she had a great smile and she said: ‘It was stunning, I absolutely loved it!’” Hale said, adding, that “it’s hard to argue with that.”
All in all, the choir, the cardinal and the organizers – all of whom approached the big fashion event with a certain amount of trepidation – said they were pleased with the result. Hale added that he was also impressed by the exhibit itself, which included 40 religious garments from the sacristy of the Sistine Chapel on loan from the Vatican.
For those not privileged to attend the event and watching the Gala with concern, due to the provocative fashion statements it sometimes presented, Hale offered words of encouragement.
“I understand how people feel,” he said. “I would quote our beloved Saint John Paul II and say: ‘Do not be afraid.’ We have to always be prudent, but we cannot be afraid. Go forth and bring the message of the Gospel. God will do the rest.”
As the choir prepares to leave the U.S. for a short while before returning for its extraordinary July 3-23 tour, some bystanders are left wondering if the Met Gala was worth all the fuss and controversy.
“If we don’t go where we are invited, and maybe even where we are not invited, to communicate the message in the spirit of the apostle St. Paul, then we are going to be an increasingly small band of people who aren’t sharing God’s Love,” he said.
“And,” he said, “it’s our duty and responsibility to share God’s love, beauty and joy.”