Culture Health

    Can opera heal you?

    1 February 2017

    The prescription for many emotional problems is call in a great composer. So says Joshua Sofaer – not a medical man, but an artist specialising in social sculpture, performance, installation and collaborative art.

Lonely and depressed? Listen to the Toreador song from Bizet’s Carmen. Missing a loved one? Puccini’s Quando me’n vo’ from La bohème may help, says Sofaer, who will arrange for an opera singer to make a house call and sing a specially chosen aria while you lounge in your comfiest armchair or recline in bed. 

    Sofaer, 44, is the creative force behind Opera Helps, an art project he launched in 2012 while working at Folkoperan, a small opera house in Stockholm. At his flat in Soho, London, the artist explains the roots of Opera Helps. ‘Folkoperan means “people’s opera”, so I had this idea of taking opera out of often intimidating, red-velvet spaces and introducing it to people in the privacy of their homes. I had this hunch they would have an immediate emotional response, that we could help people with problems.’

His UK team of seven singers — sopranos, mezzo-sopranos and baritones — completed their first tour in spring 2016 to positive reactions from audiences across the north of England, who got a dose of Sofaer’s musical ‘medicine’. Although the half-hour sessions are free, he stresses they are not a substitute for therapy. Rather, it’s ‘sustenance for the soul, a transformative experience, touching people here’, he says, indicating his heart.

Soprano Caroline Kennedy, who has performed with English National Opera (ENO) and Scottish Opera, is one of the team. ‘We are not therapists,’ she says. ‘We’re trained singers, but we give participants a list of counselling services, as well as a menu of other arias they might find helpful.’ She adds it has been a revelation to her how music can contribute to emotional health and wellbeing.

’Music just makes you feel better – it’s healing,’ agrees Sofaer, who fell for opera while working as a barman at the London Coliseum, when he would catch ENO performances. ‘I put access to art and culture on a par with the importance of human friendship and love — it’s fundamental to being alive.’

He admits the institutions surrounding opera are often elitist, but dismisses the idea it is inaccessible. ‘Barbers in Italy used to sing while working in their salons,’ he remarks, quoting research by neuroscientists at New York University revealing how an intense aesthetic experience, such as listening to music or looking at visual art, activates the emotion and rewards centres of the brain.

    ‘People come to us with deeply personal problems — from feeling lovesick to coping with something as profound as bereavement. When a singer visits, they listen, then they choose a suitable aria. Operatic singing in a domestic space is amazingly haunting — the space is never the same again.’

Kennedy concurs. She has made more than a dozen house calls, including for someone lately diagnosed with terminal cancer ‘who was incredibly positive’.

    ‘You’re a stranger in someone’s home and they can be quite distant as they’re unsure whether to trust you. Suddenly they start to confide, often getting emotional — one couple just cried and cried. You listen carefully, but once you sing there’s a transformation. I do feel emotional afterwards but Joshua is an accredited relational dynamics coach, so he’s trained us in how to distance ourselves, despite the eye-to-eye contact, which we never have in theatres.

’I never realised just how cathartic music can be. I’ve performed for someone with severe cerebral palsy and for a family — wife, husband, three daughters and grandparents — who wanted to discuss womanhood and show their girls how to share. Some people are elated afterwards. One woman suffering from depression said a weight had lifted off her. I felt as if I’d sung to someone’s soul.’

    Sofaer concludes: ‘We get fantastic feedback – “I wanted to hug the singer; I felt I had been blessed with a unique gift.” It’s terribly moving and humbling to feel you’ve made a difference — thanks to the power and beauty of great art and the human voice.’

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