Opera al fresco: How a Seattle singer shares his gift during COVID-19

Category: News

Before COVID-19 shut down performances, Stephen Wall had appeared in 99 productions at Seattle Opera. It’s “mildly driving me crazy,” says Mr. Wall, a tenor. “We baseball fans prefer round numbers.”

But the stay-home order hasn’t meant an end to singing, after all. Each weekday, Mr. Wall has stepped into his yard, shared a bit of opera history, translation, and humor, and burst into song for an appreciative audience gathered below – safety spaced six feet apart. 

The new tradition started almost by accident. But it’s yet one more creative new way for performers to connect people with the arts in Seattle and around the world, at a time when cultural organizations are suffering.

“It’s like a gift,” says Mr. Wall. That gift also returns the bounty he’s seeing and experiencing himself. For instance, the Brooklyn landlord of his daughter, an aspiring actress, just forgave her three months’ rent. And his singing has brought unexpected healing. His estranged brother reached out from Maine. 

“It’s something to offer, and I hope it would inspire people to say, ‘What do I have to offer?’, particularly in these strange times,” says Mr. Wall.

Seattle

Promptly at 5:00 one sunny afternoon, veteran Seattle Opera singer Stephen Wall steps out onto his raised front lawn – a grassy impromptu stage – drawing a scattering of applause from scores of people gathered along the tree-lined street below.

Neighbors sitting in lawn chairs, parents pushing strollers, dog-walkers and a couple on a tandem bicycle – all arrange themselves, safely spaced six feet apart, and excitedly await the show in the waterfront community of Ballard.

A seaplane flies by overhead, a dog lets out a single yap, and then all falls silent as the portly, grey-bearded Mr. Wall launches into the Verdi aria “La Donna è Mobile.” For a few minutes, his soaring voice seems to lift the audience up and away from earthly concerns – like a kite on the wind.

“It’s like a gift,” says Mr. Wall, a classically trained tenor from Connecticut, who followed his wife Ginna, a nurse, to Seattle in 1979 and made a home here. “It’s something to offer, and I hope it would inspire people to say, ‘What do I have to offer?’, particularly in these strange times.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

With Seattle Opera and so many arts venues shut down, creative new ways for performers to keep sharing their gifts are springing up all around Seattle and indeed, the world.

Amid Seattle’s lockdown, a drive-in dance show called “Cooped Up” allowed people in cars to watch dances unfolding in yards, porches, and windows. Arts Corps, an award-winning group, has distributed arts kits to child care centers in low-income neighborhoods. And many have pivoted to put classes, exhibits, and performances online – from classes by Pacific Northwest Ballet, to streamed Shakespeare plays.

They’re keeping people connected with the arts even as the region’s cultural and science non-profits suffer, with nearly 5,000 people laid off and revenue losses estimated at more than $133 million this fiscal year alone, according to the Seattle-based arts advocacy and grant-making group ArtsFund.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor

Seattle Opera tenor Stephen Wall performs a mini-concert in his yard in Ballard on April 20, 2020. His last song is always “Nessun Dorma,” an uplifting aria from Puccini’s “Turnandot” that describes the victorious dawn.

“There’s an incredible amount of resilience and responsiveness by the cultural sector,” says Sarah Sidman, vice president of strategic initiatives and communications at ArtsFund. “We are seeing cultural non-profits, whose mission is to serve the community, pivoting to make sure access to the arts is not restricted.”

Mr. Wall’s 20-minute performances, held each weekday, began almost by accident in April. He’d been teaching online music lessons all day in a curtained room, and stepped outside for a break.

“When I finally emerged from my Hobbit hole, I realized it was a beautiful day,” he says, and set out a speaker to play some jazz standards, thinking no one would mind.

On the contrary, people stopped to listen, or gave him a thumbs up. “That’s not a typical Seattle vibe,” he says. “Seattle is a little introverted, but everyone was just ready to interact.”

A few days later, he opted to sing a few numbers himself. People applauded, and asked for more. And so, Mr. Wall’s mini performances began, news spreading by word of mouth.

Martha Strickland, a teacher, lives one block away and first heard the singing on a walk with her daughter Ada and husband Greg. The family was hooked, and have returned for every performance since, pulling three-year-old Ada in a red wagon.

On this warm spring day, Mr. Wall ends the Verdi aria with a striking high note.

“Bravo!” Ada cries out. Everyone laughs and claps.

Ada, wearing pink heart sunglasses, enjoys a large lollipop during performances. “We’ve upgraded to lollipops because she keeps shouting ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’” Ms. Strickland confides.

As more children attend, Mr. Wall has pulled stunts such as his dramatic Figaro entrance: riding out on a bicycle from the side yard. (“Figaro also swings in on a rope, which I am not up to,” he says.) He donned a lion costume to sing “If I were King of the Forest” from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Whoever’s in the audience, Mr. Wall introduces each song with a bit of history, translation, and a light sense of humor. “For today I am picking mostly fairly cheerful songs for obvious reasons,” he says, “but when dealing with opera, eventually you are going to have to get around to something tragic.”

He paints a scene from the 19th century Italian opera “Pagliacci,” when a clown must perform just after learning of his wife’s betrayal. “Even though your heart is breaking, you must do the show. Perform! Laugh, clown, laugh!”

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor

Martha Strickland, a teacher, with her three-year-old daughter, Ada, and husband, Greg. They live a block away from Seattle Opera tenor Stephen Wall and have attended many of his front-yard performances.

The doleful clown holds special meaning for Mr. Wall, as he explains later, recalling watching his mentor, Richard Knoll, play the role at Kansas City’s Capri Theater in 1971. “That was it for me,” he says. “Seeing him thrill an audience with that – the theatrical catharsis that the people felt that night with that incredibly over the top, melodramatic story – I thought, that’s pretty cool.”

“I have been working on that ever since,” he says wistfully. “It’s like having a coin collection, you carry it with you the rest of your life, and you just keep enriching the value of what it means to you.”

To his audience – a family gathered on the balcony next door, a woman relaxing on her porch swing, the lady in a straw hat sitting on the curb lawn with her white dog – Mr. Wall’s joy in performing comes through.

“It’s just a beautiful thing,” says Sofia Zieve, who came from northeast Seattle for the concert. “I love that he was able to express himself and do what he loves – it was a two-way street.”

Mr. Wall’s gift also returns the bounty he’s seeing and experiencing himself. For instance, the Brooklyn landlord of his daughter, an aspiring actress, just forgave her three months’ rent.

And his singing has brought unexpected healing. His estranged brother reached out from Maine. “We have reconciled,” he says, choking up.

“You hear these stories, and tell these stories, and you can start crying,” he says. “Am I a wreck? No, it’s the words coming out of your mouth are just miraculous… you can’t even believe your own ears,” he says.

At Seattle Opera, Mr. Wall has appeared in 99 productions over 39 seasons (which, he says, “is mildly driving me crazy. We baseball fans prefer round numbers.”). He looks forward to the reopening, but for now has carved out a niche in Seattle’s “new normal” arts scene.

His last song? As always, it is “Nessun Dorma,” an uplifting aria from Puccini’s “Turnandot” that has inspired millions in Italy and around the world in recent weeks, describing the victorious dawn.

“All’alba,” he sings, with arms raised high. “Vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2020/0525/Opera-al-fresco-How-a-Seattle-singer-shares-his-gift-during-COVID-19?icid=rss