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How a Clayton-raised filmmaker landed Scorsese for her feature debut ‘The Oratorio’

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PBS
Martin Scorsese and his childhood cathedral, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City, are at the center of a new PBS documentary co-produced, co-written and co-directed by a Clayton native.

Mary Anne Rothberg grew up going to see films with her movie-buff dad at the local Tivoli and Shady Oak theaters. She remembers loving films. But she didn’t guess then that she’d one day make her own.

“It’s a career that I never thought I’d necessarily have,” the Clayton, Missouri, native explained to St. Louis on the Air.

Rothberg moved to New York City after college, where she worked in advertising. It was during her years in that field that she began to think about transitioning to film. She shifted to raising kids, but the filmmaking bug in her ear was still there. And then she met Jonathan Mann, who is now her co-producer and co-director at Provenance Productions.

Rothberg describes Mann as “a very nosy person” and herself as “an inveterate snoop.” The pair heard about a legendary New York locksmith, and in 2013 they released a 31-minute documentary, “Do Not Duplicate,” about him.

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Mary Anne Rothbergh
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Mary Anne Rothberg interviewed a robot for “Forever Endeavor,” a forthcoming documentary on legacy, immortality and remembrance.

Now the two are finishing their feature “Forever Endeavor” — and also anticipating this weekend’s premiere of “The Oratorio: A Documentary with Martin Scorsese.” They're the co-writers, co-producers and co-directors of the PBS film, which Rothberg said “just sort of fell in our laps.”

“Martin Scorsese also just sort of fell in our lap — he was an altar boy at this particular church [at the center of the film], and it remains a very special place for him,” Rothberg said.

In conversation with host Sarah Fenske on Tuesday’s show, Rothberg admitted to feeling nervous about being behind the camera, “filming one of the greatest directors ever.”

“But he was so incredibly gracious and kind, and we had worked with his team to create the narration that he was going to provide, but he [also] gave us some extra time, which was just lovely, and knew that we would need some interviews,” she said. “And it was just a dream come true.”

“The Oratorio” digs into a one-night-only performance in 1826 at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City that marked the arrival of Italian opera in the U.S.

“This [cathedral] is in Little Italy, and it really has been a cornerstone of that community for over two centuries,” Rothberg noted. “It’s a place where the Irish community originally worshipped, and then the Italians came in and became the primary worshippers, and now the neighborhood is changing a lot and is becoming more and more Chinese. And the Chinese [now have] services at this church. It’s really an incredible place.”

The film tells the stories of several key figures, including Pierre Toussaint, a freed-slave-turned-successful-hairdresser who was the first person to commit funds for the construction of the cathedral. Also at the heart of the film is Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, who organized the pivotal concert.

Rothberg explained that in the early 19th century, Da Ponte was eager for New Yorkers to know more about Italian opera, and opera in general.

Mary Anne Rothberg on her new PBS doc, working with Scorsese and growing up in the St. Louis area
Listen as the filmmaker talks with host Sarah Fenske about "The Oratorio" and her unexpected journey into cinema.

“New York was more or less a cultural backwater at the time, and really took a backseat to Philadelphia and Boston and Baltimore. And I think this [1826 concert] was Da Ponte’s way of educating New Yorkers,” the filmmaker said. “And the great thing is that this was an event that every working-class person could attend. It wasn’t some high-falutin event that cost a fortune.”

It’s said that thousands of people crowded into the church — and for Da Ponte, it was a much-needed success.

“If he were a character in a novel, people would probably chastise the author for creating a character who’s too over the top,” Rothberg said. “He was born into a Jewish family; he converted to Catholicism at age 14. He lived in a brothel and had a couple of illegitimate children, and then he was forced to flee Venice, where he grew up. And he went to Vienna, where he met Mozart and became his librettist. But the story doesn’t end there.”

Da Ponte was “always courting trouble,” Rothberg said, and came to New York as a way to avoid debtors prison in London. In New York, he worked as a grocer and bookseller, “just trying to make ends meet.” But Da Ponte eventually met Clement Clarke Moore, the author of “The Night Before Christmas,” who helped Da Ponte secure a professorship in Italian literature at Columbia University.

In addition to the PBS project, Rothberg touched on her personal journey — from Clayton to New York City, and from advertising to documentaries.

“I went through lots of different careers before I arrived at my current one, and at one point I’d hoped to be a journalist,” the filmmaker said. She credits an early internship at KMOX with teaching her interview skills as well as how to write a voiceable story with clear, short sentences.

“I found that that skill really helped in crafting the narration for Scorsese,” Rothberg said.

Related Event
What: “The Oratorio: A Documentary with Martin Scorsese” documentary
When: 3 p.m. Nov. 7
Where: Nine PBS and livestream
(“Da Ponte’s Oratorio: A Concert for New York,” a broadcast of the restaging of the historic 1826 event, will air on Nine PBS at 4 p.m. Sunday.)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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