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Opera North hosts first dementia friendly opera

Those living with dementia together with their families and carers will get a chance to enjoy an afternoon at the opera this month as Opera North prepares to hold its first ever dementia-friendly performance on Thursday 24 October at Leeds Grand Theatre.

Research has shown how life-enhancing music can be for those living with dementia, reducing anxiety, tapping into memories and encouraging a response even when verbal abilities have been lost. For its dementia friendly matinee, the company has chosen to stage Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Puccini’s La bohème in the hope that many of the audience members will recognise the music and will respond to its depiction of young love in the 1960s.

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Eleazar Rodriguez as Rodolfo and Lauren Fagan as Mimì © Richard H. Smith

The opera will be performed in full. The lighting in the auditorium will be left on low, people will be able to move around as they wish, and there will be an introduction to the opera as well as a recap of the first two acts after the interval. Additional front-of-house staff will be on hand to ensure everyone feels welcome and at ease.

Michael Barker-Caven, Revival Director of La bohème, is acutely aware of the impact dementia can have as his mother passed away as a result of Alzheimer’s disease:

“The show will be as rich and as committed as any other performance. The most important thing is to trust to the genius of Puccini and the deeply human power of the performance to reach out to the audience on the day. Music needs no explaining and I have no doubt that those who attend will find themselves entranced by its beauty, its timelessness and its enriching pathos.”

Soprano Bibi Heal shares memories during the Opera North Dementia Cafe session at the Simon Marks Court care home © Amy Charles

In preparation for the performance, Opera North has been holding a series of Dementia Cafés in settings across the city, including at Simon Marks Court, a local care home. Led by singer-songwriter Joanna Eden with soprano Bibi Heal, and using photographs, programmes and flyers from the Sixties, the sessions have encouraged participant interaction through singing and music-making.

Jo Bailey, Wellness Co-ordinator at Simon Marks Court, said:

“The visits clearly evoked memories of dance halls frequented. They allowed our residents to really open up emotionally giving us insights into their pasts that they had never shared before. It was great to see the happy smiling faces of those with advanced dementia as they sung along and really engaged with the experience. Music is a very powerful tool in dementia care, and we were honoured to be a part of this project.”

Joanna Eden chats to residents living with dementia during Opera North's Dementia Cafe session at Simon Marks Court in Leeds © Amy Charles

To gain a greater understanding of what it is like for those living with dementia and how best to make people feel valued and supported, the La bohème cast, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North and others from across the Company have become Alzheimer Society Dementia Friends. The company has also been working closely with Peer Support Service (Adult Social Care), a Leeds-based dementia charity and member of Opera North’s community engagement Encore Scheme.

Other access performances include audio described, captioned and sign interpreted.

The dementia friendly performance of La bohème is generously supported by Victoria Leeds, which recently became Opera North’s first Access Ambassador enabling more people in Leeds to engage with opera and live performance.



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