A collaboration between The Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory and The Music Troupe aims to make opera dementia friendly. Dr Andy Northcott and Edward Lambert share how the project came about.
The idea for dementia friendly opera came about as we wanted to give people living with dementia, and their loved ones, an opportunity to enjoy new experiences and engage with their community and the arts in a safe, yet authentic, environment.
Too often people with dementia are shut out from cultural experiences. At the Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory, our ethos is that people living with dementia should not only live longer lives, but also fun and fulfilled ones.
This complemented The Music Troupe's wish to perform outside of grandiose theatre venues and to find new audiences for opera in smaller, more intimate spaces, so collaboration on our dementia friendly opera began.
The Last Siren
Opera usually concerns a small body of work by composers of the past, but we wanted to show how the repertory can be renewed with contemporary works that are economic to produce and practical to move around.
Our first dementia friendly opera was a rendition of The Last Siren. It’s based on the episode in Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus cunningly avoids the trap set by the siren’s beautiful singing. We staged the performance at Lawrence Hall, a performance space on our own doorstep used by the London College of Music, who allowed us the use of the hall and the expertise of their technical staff to make the dementia friendly opera a reality.
The Last Siren wasn’t written specially for an audience living with dementia. Indeed, we were keen to present work that might be shown to any other audience. The Last Siren was suitable for such an occasion as, at just under 40 minutes, it’s short and with just two cast members, the plot is relatively straightforward.
The Magic Troupe perform in the Tête à Tête the Opera Festival at The Cockpit. Photo: Claire Shovelton
Writer Norman Welch, who came up with the idea to invent the backstory for the sirens, resisted the suggestion to update the language to make it more contemporary. Instead we decided to maintain a ‘classical’ opera setting, creating a blank canvas for the director, Jenny Weston, while using text that opera singers are comfortable with, and audiences can hear easily. The opera progressed in set numbers, arias and duets, a structure which has links to tradition.
We toyed with the idea of providing subtitles to aid the audience’s understanding of the story but instead decided to project a series of bold images that would be easier to follow and add colour to the production. The instrumental accompaniment was also colourful, featuring a pair of horns which enhanced the classical ambience.
Together, all these features facilitated the dementia-friendly performance. At its heart, our story concerns a rivalry between two sirens to discover who can succeed in sending their opposing messages to Odysseus’ ship and crew. It felt so rewarding to witness the beautiful voices of two world-class young singers moving some audience members to tears.
A dementia friendly venue
Ahead of the performance, we had to ensure the venue was dementia friendly. The key was making sure it was safe and welcoming: somewhere where people living with dementia, and their friends and family, could relax.
Before the performance began, we reassured the audience they could talk, make noise or leave at any time if they needed to. We provided quiet areas for those who wished to take a break. There was a short interactive workshop, introducing the story of the opera, the sounds the audience would hear, and even a chance to sing along with the soprano and mezzo-soprano.
Trained volunteers - academics and students from the Geller Institute - were on hand to guide and give directions, answer questions, and assist where needed. Afternoon tea was served during the interval.
Although we had procedures in place for audience members who became overwhelmed, scared or unhappy with the performance or elements of the production, none of this was needed on the day. The majority of our interactions with the audience involved simply helping them to their seats. When the music began, the audience was mesmerised and the feedback we have received was that the experience was overwhelmingly positive and powerful. This far exceeded our expectations.
The Geller Institute and The Music Troupe plan to collaborate on further events. We hope to secure funding to take these performances to wider audiences around the country, while refining a blueprint for dementia friendly performances in opera and beyond that can be used by anyone.
While we still have some questions to answer, such as the best way to do outreach and how to advertise events to audiences that may be cut off, we hope we have shown that any performance can be made dementia friendly, and that these performances hold huge value for those who are then able to attend.
Dementia by its nature can be an exclusionary condition, and with these performances, we hope to make things a little more inclusive.
Edward Lambert is a composer and Artistic Director of The Music Troupe.
Dr Andy Northcott is Senior Lecturer at The Geller institute of Ageing and Memory (University of West London).
edwardlambert.co.uk/musictroupe.html | uwl.ac.uk/research/research-centres-and-groups/geller-institute-ageing-and-memory
@musictroupe | @andynorthcott | @GIAM_UWL