Article by Lucy Curtis
A healthy society is one in which all people, regardless of age, race, gender or social standing, feel included and supported. Unfortunately, in modern society, there are cracks through which many vulnerable people fall. Entering into old age or living with a disability, we lose sight of those closest to us. Mental and physical difficulties mean that simply leaving the house is a challenge that often cannot be overcome: meeting new people becomes an impossibility, and laughing with friends a distant memory. For others who move from one country to another, leaving behind those they know and love and entering a new, foreign culture where the potential for stigmatisation is very real, it is difficult to build a home. Opera Holland Park believes it is time social isolation and exclusion came to an end. People should not feel helpless against isolation, nor should they feel defeat in asking for help. Opera Holland Park’s Inspire aims to create an environment in which helplessness and isolation are no longer felt and social inclusion and integration are simple facts of life.
Since joining the Opera Holland Park family in March, I have experienced just how integral Inspire is to the heart of the company. It is treated with the same passion and priority as the productions themselves; something that is reflected in all of Inspire’s work. I am constantly overwhelmed by the effect Inspire has on the groups we work with. The importance of the programme is never undervalued or underplayed here at Opera Holland Park and each project we develop is a concentrated effort to have a true, lasting and positive impact upon those with whom we work. Even in the smallest sense, there is no doubt in my mind that music is a hugely powerful tool in bringing people together. Simply walking through St Pancras railway station in London, you cannot miss the groups crowding around the piano; people from every walk of life simply unifying to delight in the sound of music. There is a magic that touches people upon hearing a melody – almost like the cartoon characters floating towards the smell of baked bread, we are drawn to those musical notes that ring out above the hustle and bustle of daily life. For most, however, simply accessing music and the arts is too great a challenge. Organising a trip to the theatre presents many barriers – transport, funds, fear of the unknown, and a fear of not being welcome. Opera Holland Park’s Inspire is a resource designed to overcome these fears, create a safe space and to make people feel at ease and welcome.
Working with people living with dementia has seen us set up two fantastic initiatives to combat social isolation that we will continue to develop over the coming year: Opera for Thought and Playlist for Life. Both projects aim to build trust, confidence and social inclusion through music and the arts. People with dementia are particularly at risk of social isolation as memory loss debilitates your sense of self and your ability to integrate with others. Opera for Thought brings opera to these groups through regular workshops and a live performance at Opera Holland Park. The scheme works in collaboration with Westminster Arts and was initially developed together under the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It aims to improve the participants’ social skills and overcome the boundaries between them and their access to the theatre. Last year was hugely successful, with the group’s participants continuing on to experience various social and artistic activities outside of our scheme. Opera for Thought opens the door to the wider world, through which last year’s group journeyed and now continues on as a united team. This year, we are delighted to welcome our second Opera for Thought group and look forward to embracing them in our special musical world.
Playlist for Life works on a more individual scale, bringing participants and their loved ones together. The project sees our singers and volunteers working with participants and their families to create a musical playlist that is personal and meaningful to them. As well as developing personal playlists, our singers join participants to regularly create interactive concerts of their chosen music, bringing the opera (and other great classics) to them. Playlists are made up of the music that is close to your heart, such as the song you played at your wedding, or the tune you danced to with tights on your head as a child (Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun – or was that just me?). Music can trigger a positive and emotional response, allowing those with dementia to connect to the music and the memories associated, as well as with those around them. It is truly phenomenal to see Playlist for Life bringing families and loved ones closer together through music; rekindling their love, their happiness and their memories. Every day is a journey, as is Inspire. We are thrilled with the success of these two projects so far, but more importantly, we are excited to progress them further to make a lasting impact in the years to come.
One Inspire journey that has only just begun is Adventures in Wonderland. The initiative is a response to international hardship which is causing groups of adults, families and children to emigrate and set up a new home across the sea. Giving up an entire world and moving abroad is extremely challenging and can cause a huge amount of isolation and often exclusion upon arrival due to stigma associated to a unique social situation. Whilst the arts may have once been a natural part of life, they can now seem daunting, inaccessible and unwelcome. Adventures in Wonderland aims to open the doors into this artistic world and, in doing so, extend a welcome hand into society. Based on our incredibly successful family opera, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Will Todd, the workshop and performance-based project aims to give children and families the tools to integrate into their new society, develop communication skills and build confidence. Music transcends borders and is an international language, which was evident in the first workshop as the young participants transformed before our eyes. From shy and unsure, they became confident with great, beaming faces, throwing their arms wide in perfect theatrical form and competing to sing the loudest. The transformation emerged from having a safe space in which to explore their new world, build new friendships and develop their voice with music. Most of us cannot begin to know their plight, but we can offer a refuge. Adventures in Wonderland is a fitting starting point on which we are excited to build. After all, is each day not a new adventure? And is this world not a wonderland? No matter who or where we are, we are all Alice, and at Opera Holland Park, every Alice is welcome.
Social isolation and exclusion cannot be solved overnight, nor can it be defeated in one fell swoop. But with Inspire, we are committed to using the resources that we have – and the power of music – to fight social isolation, one small pocket of people and one new initiative at a time.
The arts might not change the world, but darn it, we’ll try.
Lucy Curtis is the Inspire Coordinator for Opera Holland Park