Two Long Islanders are among the performers on the season-16 premiere of NBC's "America's Got Talent" Tuesday at 8 p.m., as members of the Northwell Health Nurse Choir.
Deer Park born-and-raised Christian Montanez, 29, is a "floating" registered nurse, assigned to where he's most needed, at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. Winnie Mele (pronounced MEE-ly), 64, who was born in Queens and has lived in Westbury since 1987, is director of Perioperative Services at Plainview Hospital. The choir's 18 nurses, including a couple more who now live on Long Island, come from 10 Northwell Health system hospitals and medical centers here, in Westchester and New York City.
Mele and Montanez were the designated spokespeople for the troupe on "AGT," telling judges Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and Sofía Vergara that Northwell Health has "23 hospitals and 18,500 nurses and there's only 18 of us standing here representing 78,000 employees, and what an honor it was for us to be chosen," Mele says.
The choir was formed last year by the nonprofit group Nurse Heroes, which teamed with producer Emilio Estefan and others for the "Nurse Heroes Live!" online benefit on Thanksgiving, performing amid a roster of music stars. Subsequent appearances have included the online 75th-anniversary event for the humanitarian organization CARE International on May 11, and Memorial Day's WNBC/4 special "Side By Side: A Celebration of Service," honoring health care workers and the military.
"We received an email from corporate," Mele recalls of the choir's formation, "that went out to all nurses asking if we wanted to be part of a choir. I love, absolutely love, to sing," which she does at church. "It's one of the things that brings me joy. So I sent in my 30-second audition tape" with a portion of the 1930s American standard "Dream a Little Dream of Me," popularized in the 1960s by The Mamas and The Papas. "And then I got an email saying that I made it."
Montanez, the son of Filipino immigrants Moses and Irene Montanez, who are nurses themselves as are his two brothers, submitted the 2002 Maroon 5 song "Sunday Morning." An initial 50 nurses were chosen from "a couple hundred" applicants, Mele says. After the Thanksgiving concert, "We got asked to try out again, saying that they're trying to whittle it down to 18."
This happened after "somebody recruiting for 'America's Got Talent' saw the video" and contacted the choir's organizer, Tina Baker, says Montanez, a weekend singer and guitarist at Long Island venues. Baker in turn brought in vocal producer Tim Davis, who, Montanez says, "put together all the harmonies and was the one really pushing us and teaching us how to be professional singers. So we owe a lot to them both."
Most of the choir members had never met each other before gathering on Sunday, April 11, after having arrived in Los Angeles the Thursday before. They immediately were tested for COVID-19 and quarantined in their hotel rooms until their negative results came in on Saturday. After rehearsing Sunday, they auditioned onstage the next day.
"When we met in person, that was an awesome experience," says Montanez, who is married to wife Rhine and has two young children. "It was also "intimidating," he says, "because we instantly knew we were going to be judged by each other. But once we all started singing, it felt like we weren't strangers anymore."
Mele, a mother of three adult sons with her husband John, who is fighting stage 4 cancer, agrees. "We were nervous because you didn't know anybody," she says. "And that first time we sang together, it was magical."