As Nova Jimenez takes center stage behind a mic and portable amp set up in a parking stall behind Stanford Health Care on a recent Wednesday afternoon, her voice tenderly cuts through the backup bells of nearby construction trucks and the steady hum of traffic along El Camino Real.
"E schiudi l'uscio al tuo cantor! (Open the door to your cantor!)," the trained soprano sings in Italian as she serenades a dozen or so masked health care workers who are spread out across the back of the Menlo Park office about 20 feet away.
For the next 30 minutes, the daily realities of working on the front line seem to fade away with every note she delivers. There's no discussion of vaccines, sickness or death — just singing, swaying, clapping and unbridled joy.
Impromptu concerts at unlikely venues have become routine for Jimenez, a private voice teacher and lecturer at Stanford University who has been performing what she calls "sidewalk serenades" for front-line and essential workers and isolated seniors around the Bay Area nearly every weekend since May. She's performed in front-yard lawns, asphalt parking lots and on a sidewalk 11 stories below her audience.
"I think the work I'm doing right now, it's my most important purpose in life," said Jimenez, who has been singing professionally since she was a child. "We're living in all these restrictions and to be able to do one little thing without endangering people, it is freeing.
"I feel like (these serenades) were just absolutely meant to be. ... My years of training, my experience, everything sort of pointed in this direction. This is why I'm singing."
Jimenez said she's always turned to singing during difficult times.
"When I'm challenged, my first response and my reaction is to sing," she said. "When I was a child, I would go in my room and sing for hours. It's how I healed myself. I got to be creative, and I got an opportunity to really sort of scream away my troubles."
And that's what happened last spring, when the pandemic hit. She went into her studio and started singing for hours — something she hadn't done in recent years while busy raising her two school-aged sons.
"I came out, and I said, 'You know, maybe someone needs a lift. Maybe I can share some of the healing that I feel with others.' And so it kind of went from there," she said.
Jimenez bought a portable amp and a microphone and went outside to sing for her Stanford neighbors.
"It was so fun," she said. "You know, it was like, just this way to kind of get people out of their houses. It was the greatest feeling."
Jimenez wanted to share that experience beyond her immediate neighbors, so she placed an ad on the NextDoor website offering free sidewalk serenades to essential workers or anyone isolated due to the pandemic "who needed a lift."
The response has been incredible, said Jimenez, who has performed close to 70 sidewalk serenades. She's been invited to perform outside the homes of teachers, doctors, her mail carrier, seniors at Channing House in Palo Alto and even a blind musician in her 90s whose daughter reached out after hearing Jimenez perform on the radio.
Jimenez admits her outdoor concerts are not the greatest acoustically: She can't hear herself through her little portable amp, but she's learned that it's not about how beautiful she sounds.
"This is about sending music out to whomever wants to hear it," she said. "I can't see people's faces when I'm singing, but I get this energy from them, and it radiates. I think we all need to realize the power, the importance of music and singing and how it can heal … especially at a time like this during the pandemic."
During her sidewalk serenades, Jimenez performs a variety of music from Italian opera to classic musicals to pop. She typically starts with Italian opera composer Ruggero Leoncavallo's serenade "Mattinata" and likes to end with a singalong of "A Brand New Day" from the musical "The Wiz."
Jimenez said this is the first time in her career as a performer that she has had the freedom to select the music she wants to sing.
"I can sing any genre I want," she said "My whole entire life as a professional singer, you know, you sing what you're told to sing. I never wanted to be in a box. I never wanted to be just an opera singer. … It's been absolutely liberating for me."
Jimenez said performing outdoors during the pandemic has given her life purpose and clarity about the importance of music.
"This is my skill. I've been working at it my whole life. It's something I love to do … and it's gotten me out of my house, and I've gotten to meet so many incredible people," she said. "It's like, there are these memories that would have never happened if this didn't happen the way it did.
"So I really believe that in all of this darkness, there is some light. And all I want to do is just kind of share some of that joy and light and be a reminder that our lives will one day return back to normal, and no one's alone."