The clock strikes 6, the balcony doors swing open, and a woman steps outside, South Philadelphia at her feet.
A crowd gathers across the street, in mostly socially distant clusters, as piano music swells.
With a flourish, Aubry Ballarò launches “Quel guardo il cavaliere” from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, every note dancing against the rowhouse bricks. Neighbors look up, admiringly.
In better times, as recently as about two months ago, Ballarò, a soprano, would have been singing the aria inside Victor Cafe, the century-old Italian restaurant at 13th and Dickinson Streets whose waiters perform opera between courses.
But with dining rooms closed by the pandemic, and the notion of live singers verboten, owner Greg Di Stefano’s company of singers has moved upstairs to the ornate second-floor balcony above the restaurant.
At 6:01 p.m. Thursday to Sunday, while customers pick up their food to go, it’s opera time on Dickinson Street for 15 minutes or so.
The idea for providing al fresco arias came to Di Stefano’s sister Pamela and his wife, Alexa, at the same time a few weeks ago. “They want to sing,” Di Stefano said of the performers. The Di Stefanos, who live two doors away, quickly put together a schedule, and plan to offer the performances for the foreseeable future, he said.
“The opera is what makes Victor so magical, and it meant so much that they brought that magic to us during this insane time,” said Shira Haaz, a neighbor, who shows up with her husband, Ryan, and kids Nate and Eliza. “For the moments they’re singing, the chaos of the world pauses. You’re transported. Even our overly energetic 4-year-old is hypnotized by the beauty of the music.”
Greg Di Stefano’s grandfather John, whose name is carved into the concrete facade, was an opera aficionado in 1918 when he opened the Victor as a gramophone store and social hub for the neighborhood’s Italian immigrants. He also was a frequent customer at the Camden company Radio Corporation of America, which later became RCA Victor.
Then the Depression hit. Upstairs in his apartment he’d make sandwiches to serve to customers. In 1933, at the end of Prohibition, Di Stefano said, his grandfather bought a license to sell beer and wine.
Patrons sang at the cafe from time to time, but in 1979 a waiter sang for his customers. From then on, about every 15 or 20 minutes during dinner, a bell rings and the dining room pauses for an aria. The cafe caught Sylvester Stallone’s eye 15 years ago, and the Victor made it to the big screen in Rocky Balboa and the sequel Creed, decorated pretty much as it is, as “Adrian’s.”
Di Stefano concedes that he is not making money on the modest-priced takeout food, though proceeds are paying insurance and the mortgage.
The performers are not on salary, but the Di Stefanos make sure they leave with meals for themselves and their significant others.
So, heh-heh, they sing for their supper?
“No,” Di Stefano replied. “They sing for the love of opera. I just give them food.”