Therese Panicali believes it was a leap of faith that helped her follow her heart’s dream to pursue a career in music.
While every Sunday she leads the congregation in song as music director at St. Anselm Church on Fourth Avenue and 82nd Street in Bay Ridge, she also finds the time to indulge her passion for opera and classical music.
The Brooklyn-born soprano is just as comfortable singing church hymns like “Amazing Grace” as she is performing the title role in Turandot with Opera New York and Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony opposite Metropolitan Opera and Bolshoi Theatre soloist, Mikhal Svetlove.
Panicali’s remarkable resume boasts unforgettable career milestones, such as appearing twice internationally with The Cairo Symphony Orchestra, where she was invited to sing at a special performance at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. Additionally, she recently performed the critically acclaimed role of Turandot with the Metro Chamber Orchestra opposite Met Opera tenor John Horton Murray and also performed the role of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni.
Panicali fell in love with music at an early age; she is the ninth of eleven children from a religious family.
“We all went to school at St. Athanasius Catholic Academy in Bensonhurst, and music was just part of childhood,” she recalled. “My father was a singer who won a competition and sang on the radio, and my grandfather was also a wonderful singer from Trieste, Italy.”
And while her father, Eugene, brought a love of music to the family, her mother, Santina, would sing church songs around the house and was a fixture at St. Athanasius, where she also sang in the choir.
Panicali remembers singing as far back as 4 years old: “I’d sing outside, and people would ask me to sing for them, and they’d actually give me pennies and dimes to perform.”
When Panicali entered St. Athanasius, the teachers there quickly realized that she was a talented vocalist. A math teacher at the time encouraged her to sing her first solo, leading to her joining a theater group and landing a part in the school play.
“My first role was as Gretl von Trapp in “The Sound of Music,” which seemed appropriate since music was part of our household and everybody loved to sing,” she recalled. “We would gather around the piano and joyfully sing and harmonize together. If there was YouTube then, we might have actually been like the von Trapps.”
A few years later, she landed the title role in a production of Annie.
Panicali went on to graduate from LaGuardia High School (the “Fame” school) and ultimately the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music, where she graduated with a performance degree in opera.
She credits her family’s faith and devotion for helping instill her values: “God felt like a family member.”
After receiving her music degree, Panicali pursued a career in musical theater. Her extensive theatrical credits include Stephen Schwartz’s 1997 biblical musical “Children of Eden.” Schwartz, who is also the acclaimed composer of “Wicked,” “Godspell,” and “Pippin,” was so impressed with Panicali that he personally selected her to sing one of his songs at a symposium, which she claims as one of the highlights of her career.
When her mother passed away, Panicali took a step back to reevaluate her career choices and started to move more towards opera. She performed with the Amato Opera, Opera New York, and the Regina Opera Company. At the same time, she continued to perform in other productions, including “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Sweeney Todd.”
Then, according to Panicali, God — in the form of St. Athanasius Pastor Msgr. David Cassato — intervened and brought her back to where she started, singing in the church choir at St. Athanasius and St. Anselm.
“I was sitting in the waiting room of Maimonides Hospital waiting for my father to have heart surgery,” she recalled. “I was so sad and worried when all of a sudden I heard this loud, booming voice saying, ‘Panicali, so you’re the one with the golden voice. When are you going to come and sing for me?’ I immediately stopped crying as he comforted me, and I felt as if God had sent him to me at that moment.”
She would go on to sing for him, and then, in 2009, she accepted the position of music director at St. Anselm. The new pastor at the time, Msgr. Maloney, was looking to hire a permanent music director. He asked Panicali who she would recommend before ultimately asking if she’d take the job.
“I wasn’t sure I could do it, and that’s when I took a leap of faith and said OK,” she said. “And now, 13 years later, I’m still doing it.”
David Boldt Smith has been a member of the St. Anselm choir, under the direction of Panicali, for 10 years. He calls her the most resolute, inspiring, and patient leader he has ever worked with.
“Therese gets the best musicality at the highest level from a group of amateurs, many of whom do not read music,” he said. “I began with Therese as a timid bass that had not sung in choir for 20 years and have grown into a confident bass/baritone singing with an additional choir standing next to a man who sings at the Met.”
Smith said that one of Panicali’s strong suits is her ability to lift everyone to her level without accepting lower standards and described her as “nothing short of a treasure.”
Today, Panicali views it as divine intervention. She directs both the adult and children’s choirs with up to 20 members in each choir and also composes and arranges classical and religious songs for them. And while she is well-versed in classical music, she does admit to appreciating various genres of music and even favoring a few country songs, such as Garth Brook’s timeless ballad “The Dance.”
She believes inspiring young people is of paramount importance and views her music ministry as a means to attract people to fill the pews in the church.
“I have always led with my faith. What I got growing up was this amazing strong foundation of faith from my parents,” she said. “Music is one of the most powerful channels to evangelize.
“I’m hopefully being all things to all people and helping to bring people back to the faith.”