Thursday, May 7, 2020
Making beautiful music: The pandemic-era arias coming from 4th Street
Text and photos by Stacie Joy
It all started here. Like so many of us, I’d had a rough day (week, month) dealing with pandemic-related issues. I was grumpy because I’d waited in line at Key Food desperately hoping to buy toilet paper and paper towels and, of course, none were to be found.
As I was leaving, I heard live music coming from the front entrance to the Gusto House at 197 E. Fourth St. between Avenue A and Avenue B, a lovely classical piano and a soaring soprano soloist and found my dark and heavy mood lifting.
The music was beautiful and hopeful and I knew I wanted to learn more. I took a short video, and thanks to the magic of social media, a few minutes after I posted the clip, I had the names of the artists and we’d set a date to do an interview and photoshoot.
I met up with East Village resident Colin Huggins and Shaina Martinez to watch and hear them perform, learn more about their livestreams during the COVID-19 crisis and even lie down under Colin’s piano to experience the sound vibrations.
How did the idea for this project get started? And how did you come to be performing out of the East Village’s famed Gusto House?
Colin: I’ve been dreaming for years of having a unique performance space that I could manage to enable artists to more freely present their work and find an immediate impact on audiences.
Shaina: I met Colin about a year and a half ago when I had sung with him under the arch in Washington Square Park. I reconnected with him in the summer, back when I was working as a doorman/porter on the Upper East Side — taking out trash and doing double shifts — and I joined him on weekends when I had free time.
I was lucky to get a contract as a young artist with an opera company in Florida starting in October so I collaborated with him until I moved to Miami.
When I saw other opera companies cutting their seasons short in response to the coronavirus, I reached out to him. When I returned home because the remaining performances were postponed, we kind of just picked up right where we left off. I was so grateful that he let me join him regularly to perform some opera arias.
Colin told me he had acquired a space and along with one of his friends, I helped him to move the piano in the space and we just started making some music. Honestly, it’s all Colin’s genius idea to open up the space for people to listen when they pass by.
What has the response been like for you? Do you notice a difference in responses now, during this global pandemic, vs previous performances?
Colin: Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, most performance artists in New York City have been forced to find methods of performing that adhere to social distancing. This isn’t an easy task.
New York City has suffered more than any other city in the United States due to this pandemic. It’s a very extreme era people here must reckon with. I think everyone is doing their best to stay positive but there is definitely a sullenness and quiet that wasn’t there before.
Shaina: I’m not a big social media person and I’m terrible at self-promotion when it comes to opera, so I’ve had to get better at being more extroverted when it comes to performing for people who haven’t walked up with the agenda of hearing opera.
Usually, my performances are planned and rehearsed over months — any recitals or operas I was a part of took months of coaching and lessons and practicing. And they were held in theaters or recital halls. I was really lucky to perform for small gatherings of people back in Miami, which is a whole different feeling than being on a stage portraying a character. It’s like apples and oranges, I’m so used to this by now: as long as there is a piano and a pianist, and people who will take time to listen, I’m good to go! And I think people are definitely more appreciative of hearing live music or available live performances because we’ve been quarantining for weeks.
How do you decide what to perform? Are there special challenges involved using a mask and gloves when creating your music?
Colin: I perform mostly classical music. It’s generally very difficult for people to jeer at beautiful classical music played on a high-quality piano. Being that there are so many residential buildings on that block and a women’s and children’s shelter directly across the street, I want to make sure they all can enjoy it and not be annoyed or kept awake. It’s a very difficult task to create art that has some kind of universal appeal, especially while wearing a mask and gloves.
Shaina: A lot of the repertoire I sing as full-lyric soprano is a lot of people’s cup of tea. The famous tunes that you hear in commercials are usually from operas where my type of voice is desired. Colin can play these arias and he enjoys playing them.
In regards to the mask and gloves — I had read some articles about how singing actually spreads more germ particles in the air so I figured I should keep my germs to myself, and the gloves, well I really don’t want to sanitize every five seconds.
The only challenges I find when singing with the mask are when I’m breathing in quickly and I end up sucking my mask to my mouth, and the loss of visual communication. Nobody can see if I’m smiling or frowning when I’m singing and trying to emote. But that gives me a better chance to emote with my eyes and try to communicate better with my audience, so it’s actually a very helpful challenge for me.
How can people find out when the next live event will be? Additionally, how can people support you during this crisis?
Colin: To find out when I’ll be playing next, the best thing to do is follow me on Instagram. Social media has become way more important during the lockdown. To support me the best is Venmo. I don’t see paper money often these days. It’s probably best. It’s covered in germs. My Venmo handle is: @Everythingwillbeok.
Shaina: If people want to support, I would say to tune into Colin’s livestreams and give him donations but also to donate to the company that has taken me in as one of their own: Florida Grand Opera. They gave me so many amazing opportunities to perform and to grow. I even had the chance to perform my dream role, Cio-Cio-san, in Madama Butterfly with them!