Mozart’s Don Giovanni is one of the most performed operas in history, from its 1787 debut to Austrian royalty to Peter Sellars’ racially-charged adaptation set in 1990s New York. Perhaps its most recent excerpted performance was by Steven Martin, Emerson’s director of off-campus student services, to an audience of two dozen students and faculty crowded together outside the Office of Diversity and Inclusion on Sept. 25.
In less than an hour, Martin, a classically trained opera singer, would adopt Don Giovanni’s powerful persona. He would also become the demonic barber of Sweeney Todd, the cannibal king of Side Show, and the handsome hero Mr. Black of “Wild Party.” And he would call up rain as the god of water of Once on this Island, even as the gloomy afternoon’s dark clouds threatened to burst outside the 10th floor of the Walker Building.
Accompanied by Jonathan Mastro, a part-time professor of performing arts, on the piano, Martin performed what he called “Songs Through Time,” a series of pieces of personal importance throughout his life. The event was sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and is part of a monthly series called the Walker 10 Salon, which Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Sylvia Spears said is designed to “highlight some of the incredible people at Emerson.”
The afternoon performance had a cozy, low-key feel with a platter of chocolate chip cookies and plush seats pulled into a semi-circle. When seating ran out, people raided rolling chairs from nearby conference rooms. Some sat cross-legged on the floor.
“Welcome to our open rehearsal,” Martin joked during his introduction.
He said that his singing career started in childhood, where he sang in church and school chorus. At 12 years old, he scored the lead role in a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors put on by the local University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Six years later, Martin said, he would attend UNC for his undergraduate degree in voice.
“That first performance at UNC was where I really got the bug to sing opera,” said Martin.
He said he later studied at the Boston Conservatory where he got his master’s degree in opera. He has worked as Emerson’s Director of Off-Campus Student Services for the past three years, and worked as a staff assistant in Student Life for two years before that.
The selections from Martin’s performance were tied together only by the fact that all had personal significance for him. Many were love songs—“I love love songs,” said Martin—and many had dark undertones. Some pieces in this category included “You Should Be Loved” from Side Show; “I’ll Be Here” from Wild Party; and what Martin said was his favorite from the collection, “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd.
“I love that [Pretty Women] is very difficult, and works well for people who are ‘legit’ singers,” said Martin.
Another selection was “Rain” from Once on This Island, a musical important to Martin because it was his Boston debut.
“It was the first production I did after graduating from the Boston Conservatory,” said Martin. “I’d been doing so much opera in school I was honestly sick of it. It was really great for me to get to sing in this fun musical about storytelling. It’s got a Carribean and a Little Mermaid kind of vibe to it.”
Martin introduced each piece with an explanation of where he had been in his life when he’d first heard it, and why it was so significant to him.
For his finale, however, he said that this piece “needed no introduction.” He then performed a slow, haunting rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” that left several members of the audience openly in tears.
“I’ve talked to Steven so many times about wanting to hear him sing,” said senior performing arts major Caroline Lacy. “He just surpassed everything I expected, I cried at the end.”
In the Q&A that followed the performance, one audience member asked how Martin could “reconcile” his day job with his “gift and craft” for singing.
“I love performing,” said Martin. “But at this job I get to go see shows all the time and hear what other people are doing and I find a lot of joy in that also.”
When asked if he felt his creative and musical background made him a better fit as an Emerson staff member, Martin explained further.
“I’m happy to be here because of [the creativity] our school is known for,” said Martin. “I’d prefer to say that’s what makes the students and I a good fit for each other.”
Mastro, who provided Martin’s accompaniment and is new to Emerson’s faculty this semester, said that he very much enjoyed working with the singer.
“There are a lot of people in the world with beautiful voices,” said Mastro. “But Steven is also a very lovely, kind, and open person. We had a real working connection... I very much hope we can perform together again.”