Last week I was working with the Learning and Participation Department at the Royal Opera on a project to bring singing and opera to elderly communities in central London. Two workshop leaders (Freya Wynn-Jones and Izzy Adams, plus pianist Jonothan Williams) each worked for four weeks with two groups and two singers (me and Siobhain Gibson, another mezzo) joined each group at its final session. At the end of the week all four groups assembled in the Paul Hamlyn Hall at ROH for an event in which everyone shared what they had done. Guests were invited and tea and cake was served.
The Royal Opera has a strong track record of working with youth groups and the local community in Thurrock, where the RO Production Workshop is based. However, it has only recently extended its work to the other end of the age spectrum and is still exploring how best to build engagement with the elderly population. We know from Pina Bausch’s work that age need not be a barrier to participation and, indeed, there are actors in their 70s who still regularly appear in Royal Opera main stage productions.
But the people we were working with on this project may not have sung for years, if at all. Alas, I still hear many stories of people who are told at school that they can’t sing and clam up for the rest of their life. One of the great pleasures of getting to know these groups even within such a short time-frame was to witness how everyone pulled together at the prospect of giving a “performance”. Once in the impressive surroundings of the Paul Hamlyn Hall and alongside groups from other venues, everyone’s contribution went up another gear, each group determined not to be outdone.
It was an inspiring and touching performance, with little step-out solos for those who felt brave, a Summer-themed song of their own for each group, some new words to an old tune (four verses created by the four groups) and a final big sing-song of the tunes which had been common to all four groups’ work, complete with actions. I got to give my first performance of Papageno’s aria, for which I was able to arrange a last-minute loan of some pipes from a regular inhabitant of the role. Siobhain gave her finest Carmen in our own version of the Habanera and we also squeezed in a bit of Gounod and Weill, to give the groups a chance to catch their breath.
There were many moments to treasure but three really stand out for me: Marguerite, aged 98, singing the Habanera in French, supported by Siobhain; doing the Macarena with one of the groups in their post-lunch workout (left); being approached after we had finished by a couple in their 60s whom I had observed arrive slightly late but then throw themselves into the audience participation with gusto. It turns out that they were nothing to do with the project but were passing the Box Office and came upstairs to see what was going on – they liked the look of it so much they decided to join in.
A pity they live in Portsmouth!