Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to email@example.com with the subject “Stepping Up.”
On a recent sunny Wednesday afternoon on a leafy street in east Ballard, children rode bikes, neighbors walked their dogs, and a man with a voice that seemed to reach heaven sang opera in his front yard.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought many changes to our lives, and most of them we didn’t want. But it’s also brought some unexpected joys. Stephen Wall, a classically trained tenor and veteran Seattle Opera performer (where he also works as chorus personnel coordinator), has been giving daily 5 p.m. performances on weekdays for nearly two weeks now. They’re short concerts, 15-20 minutes total, accompanied by a recorded orchestral score playing on an amplifier. Neighbors — several dozen — gather at appropriate distance to watch; it’s a welcome break in the now-familiar strangeness, for many, of weekdays at home.
On that Wednesday, dressed casually in faded jeans, Wall sang five arias, concluding with Puccini’s soaring “Nessun dorma.” He spoke just a bit between the songs, providing brief introductions. A dad on a next-door balcony, holding a redheaded toddler, waltzed to the music. A couple watching from the sidewalk snuggled close together in rapt listening. Two small boys watched from the branches of a nearby tree. Kids sat on curbs; grown-ups sprawled in the grass; a watching reporter, caught up in the beauty of the Puccini aria, blinked away tears behind her sunglasses.
And everyday life went on: An Amazon delivery driver, with a quietly amused, seen-it-all expression, dropped off a package next door mid-concert.
“It’s nice, it’s a novelty,” said James Byrne, who lives nearby and has heard the concerts four times now. “It’s something that kind of distracts you from what’s happening, the boringness of everyone’s day-to-day life right now.”
For Wall, who teaches singing from home these days (via Zoom) while Seattle Opera is shut down, the concerts provide a welcome distraction as well; something to plan his day around that gives pleasure to his neighbors. The regular performances are a bit of an accident: Things began a couple of weeks ago when Wall, tired of the dark studio inside his house, ventured into the front yard on a sunny day to practice his string bass. “I thought, this will be nice and innocuous, it won’t bother anyone,” he said.
Quite the opposite happened: People were interested and curious, “so I thought, ‘the bass is your hobby but opera is what you really do.’” Inspired by an online video he’d seen of an Italian man singing “Nessun dorma” from his balcony during quarantine, Wall gave a brief concert on a Monday afternoon — and thought he’d maybe do it again, now and then.
“I didn’t do it on Tuesday as I had so many students,” he remembered. “But I had just come back from the grocery store at about 4:30 on Wednesday, taking things upstairs, and I could see people were in the street.” He waved and said hello, and a neighbor asked if he’d be singing that day. “I said, ‘I guess so!’ I brought out the amp and it’s been every weekday since then.”
The song lineup is mostly different every day; Wall likes to mix up recognizable arias with more obscure personal favorites. (That Wednesday concert included two Handel arias, Rossini and Verdi, as well as the Puccini.) He enjoys putting together each mini-concert.
“It gives me a reason to get up and do some homework, prepare for a project, put on a decent shirt, comb my hair. Simple things,” he said.
Wall says he’ll continue the concerts, weather permitting, until he runs out of songs (not likely) or we all go back to work. He’s mindful of disturbing the neighbors, but has observed that “everyone seems to sincerely be enjoying it. If there are people who are not excited about it, I think everyone’s aware that it’s less than a half-hour.” (Nobody has catcalled yet, he said, laughing.)
“It’s really been great for me,” he said. “Like everyone, I have concerns, I have trouble sleeping, wondering what’s coming next. But the fact that, other than when I’m teaching, I’m spending time working on this rather than obsessing over the news or the stock market — it’s good for my mental health.”
And it’s a bit of art, dropped like a gift into an ordinary day. As Wall sung “Nessun dorma” on that sunny afternoon, he raised his arms as he hit the aria’s climactic, glorious high note. The opera’s chorus chimed in on the recording, like distant angels, and it was as if all of us were singing, making music together on that street and in that moment. Just then, we all forgot about coronavirus and unemployment and worries; just then, everything was beautiful.
(Ginna Wall video)