No stage, yet soprano finds hope in a shrunken world

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A particular voice has resounded through a number of institutions in the Northwest Bronx and beyond. It echoed through the halls of SAR Academy, and reverberated through the homes of students as a tutor. Her signature soprano carried through the great spaces of Carnegie Hall, the Miami Music Festival, and the Manhattan Opera Studio over the past decade with classic pieces like Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro” and “Pamina” — pieces we know better as “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Magic Flute.” 

That voice belongs to Sigal Chen — a voice now confined inside her Riverdale home. Alone.

Well, not exactly. She has her students. And while they can’t physically be with her, that’s not stopping her from spreading her vast musical knowledge to young minds through online videoconferencing apps.

“I’m a singer, but I have my master’s in musical education,” Chen said. “I want to teach. I love it. Now the idea of going to a student’s home or them coming here to learn is a nightmare.”

As the state was locked down on March 22 to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, Chen returned home to Riverdale feeling waves of confusion and panic rise.

“The first few weeks were terrible, very hard,” Chen said. “I couldn’t focus easily, I couldn’t see my students, I wasn’t sure what to do. I’m a very active person, and then I couldn’t go anywhere — not to see people, at least.”

Feelings of solitude and stillness for a musician who tours and performs as often as Chen are not welcome feelings. 

It was for excitement and learning that Chen voyaged to New York City in the first place. Hailing from Israel, Chen hoped to expand her range and find a musical community with a strong Jewish presence — hopes she fulfilled in this part of the Bronx.

“I started doing gigs in the area,” Chen said. “I perform in many languages, and not just opera — my father was a musician who sang Sephardic Jewish music, and I learned a lot from him. My religion and traditions are very important to me.”

Riverdale, Chen said, is a community that loves music. 

“Seeing people here is so important to me,” she said. “I can’t do that in the same way anymore.”

But within days, Chen realized she wasn’t alone. Students started calling her, expressing boredom and disappointment at not being able to see their teacher nor learn from her. To Chen, there was only one solution.

“I realized they had to keep practicing or they’d forget,” she said. “We had to video chat.”

Chen tested out a number of videoconferencing applications, with the goal of finding one that didn’t glitch and pause. A clear image was among the highest of necessities.

“It took a while to figure that out,” Chen said. “We tried each one, but it seemed Zoom was best. The point is, I can see them now.”

Seeing a student sing, according to Chen, is as vital to teaching the vocal arts as hearing, making videoconferencing applications — while not perfect — extremely helpful.

“There is very much to focus on by seeing the singer,” Chen said. “You can determine the tension in the jaw, you can almost see how their neck strains. Singing is about using the whole body. It’s a very physical art.”

As Chen reached out to students, finding ways to keep each other focused, she managed to create something she considered tremendously important for finding meaning in these times: An active routine.

“These classes are the core of my day, now,” Chen said. “But there’s more. I have breakfast at a certain time, I go for a power walk, I rehearse my languages, I go home and practice old repertoire and new material that I’ve always wanted to try. I call my students and we continue our lessons. 

“Eventually, focus is possible. And the time isn’t paralyzing like before.”

With this, Chen joined the numerous teachers and tutors and students who have shifted their work and focus to an entirely new medium, one that requires much more focus and intent. It doesn’t always go perfectly. Chen may play a chord and her student may mishear it, or their mind will be elsewhere — after all, she says, screens aren’t faces. And yet, as May began, Chen has found herself contemplating the future, reveling each moment that permits a sense of calm and joy.

“Every day I’m able to be here in a wonderful part of the city so close to the natural,” Chen said. “It’s so peaceful, but it’s also very quiet and strange. When this is done, the performing arts, opera and otherwise will experience something of a major change. I think I am both excited for that, but also scared.”

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