By Pete Kennedy
Jean Scalessa is making plans for July 4, 2020. The nonprofit group she leads, ARIANNA Alliance, has partnered with the city of Wilmington to stage an event on the city’s riverfront in the style of Olympic opening ceremonies.
“We’re going to bring to people the power of the arts,” she said. “The Wilmington Festival of Festivals, including a parade of nations and a gala concert featuring more than 100 professional musicians and dancers.”
Scalessa, a Wilmington resident who turns 77 this month, is a mezzosoprano with plenty of stage experience to draw on. She co-founded The Delaware Singers, a professional choral ensemble. She spent 19 years as Director of Music Ministry for St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, retiring in 2007. In 2014, she co-founded ARIANNA Alliance, a nonprofit focused on performing arts, design and technology that celebrates Italian culture.
With the Wilmington Festival of Festivals, she hopes to bring together the city’s various cultural and ethnic communities in a celebration of shared values amid cultural differences.
Scalessa grew up in a multicultural community — the Fishtown section of Philadelphia.
“It was a jewel of opportunity to be in row homes with hundreds of other children available, a built-in playground on our own street,” she said.
Her family moved to Wilmington when she was 13, and she enrolled at St. Elizabeth School, where her exceptional singing voice earned her solo roles in school concerts.
In her senior year, she faced a difficult decision that ended up being critical to her
future. She was chosen to give a solo performance in her own school’s concert series, but the dates conflicted with Salesianum High School’s production of “Oklahoma,” in which had been cast in the lead female role.
Despite a few threats from the St. Elizabeth’s principal, Scalessa chose “Oklahoma.” After
the performance, Salesianum’s theater director, Rev. John Spragg, OSFS, asked Scalessa where she wanted to go to college.
Scalessa, who had a clerical job at DuPont
lined up after graduation, had never considered college. Her mother graduated eighth grade and her father finished fourth grade, so high school was an accomplishment.
Scalessa could think of only one school to tell the priest: Catholic University of America, where one of her friends had gone. Spragg knew the head of the university’s music department, Dr. John Paul, and was able to get Scalessa an audition, which led to a scholarship.
Shortly after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music, she got married and began moving frequently throughout the East Coast for her husband’s work.
“The good news for me was that I was able to practice my art in those places, performing in operas in Florida, Georgia and New Jersey,” she said.
When she returned to Wilmington, she began teaching in a combined choral program split between Ursuline Academy and Salesianum. In 1981, she traveled to Italy to attend summer workshops at Universita di Musica in Rome. She relished the freedom to focus entirely on her art.
“In college, there were other subjects. Then I was married with children, and singing was an avocation, not a vocation,” she said. “It was profound to be able to study and gain an advanced understanding of vocal technique.”
After Rome, she seized an opportunity with Rev. William Keech, OSFS, who had worked at Salesianum during her high-school theater days. He had become the pastor at
St. Anthony of Padua Church, and he hired Scalessa to helm the church’s music department.While at St. Anthony’s, she had
a revelation about the church’s popular annual Italian festival.
“Hundreds of people would pass through the streets, but hardly anybody would come into the church,” she said.
Scalessa scheduled a series of short concerts in the church during the festival week showcasing professionals of varied musical talents. A gala concert was added on the opening Sunday, offering a sampling of each concert’s program to promote the concert series.
“The audience was overwhelmed,” she said. “Even if they didn’t like the flute ensemble, they could wait seven minutes until the percussion group played, or the singers, or [accordionist] Joseph Soprani and his mandolin players.”
In 2014, she teamed up with acclaimed conductor Simeone Tartaglione and entrepreneurial consultant Joe Errigo to form ARIANNA Alliance. With support from community leaders and volunteers, ARIANNA — short for Alleanza per il Rinascimento degli’ Italiani Americani Nel Nord America — offered an array of events celebrating Italian culture.
On Nov. 10 of this year, ARIANNA is planning another Gala Concert featuring renowned organist Ronald Stolk, the Catholic University of American orchestra, 12 harpists, and a preview of the Parade of Nations including a floral procession with young ballet dancers. St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church, the site of this concert, will debut a Nativity-themed laser light show.
As she looks ahead to the Wilmington Festival of Festivals in 2020, Scalessa is channeling a long-held desire to embrace
all the cultures in the city.
“ARIANNA will be acting on behalf of the Italian community and highlighting one of the greatest signatures of Italians — that we’re very hospitable,” she said.
For more information on ARIANNA Alliance events, visit www.ariannaalliance.org. IAH