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English National Opera: How music can help you breathe

The ENO are introducing a new initiative to aid Covid recovery, Claire Jackson investigates

From a defiled giant pink My Little Pony (Salome) and explicit MySpace messages (Two Boys) to nudity and new music (Salome again; The Mask of Orpheus etc), English National Opera (ENO) has always taken creative risks. Some have worked, some have not – and many have divided opinion. Productions have taken place amid financial woes, in-fighting and industry squabbles.

This has sometimes meant that ENO’s artistic reputation has been overshadowed by its fancier neighbour, the Royal Opera House. But over the past year, the imaginative rule-breaking that lies at the heart of ENO has enabled the organisation to produce a portfolio of work that no other arts collective has managed during the same time scale.

During the first wave of the pandemic, the ENO turned its costume department over to making emergency PPE. The team produced 1,700 pairs of scrubs, 500 hats and 1,000 visors, as well as raising £26,000 towards materials, with the remaining money donated to NHS charities. (Deputy head of costume Sarah Bowern subsequently received an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list.)

Then, when socially distanced performances were permitted, the organisation put on the UK’s first-ever drive-in opera, battling a freak storm to produce a belting La bohème. Critics were uncharacteristically impressed. And now, as the crisis endures and doors to the Coliseum remain closed, the ENO is contributing again – this time, supporting Covid recovery through a groundbreaking nationwide programme, ENO Breathe.

Created in partnership with Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, ENO Breathe is intended to help combat the long-term breathlessness that many patients suffer from in the aftermath of Covid-19. Online sessions led by Baylis, ENO’s learning and participation programme, teach participants how to regain breath control through singing – taking lullabies as the starting point.

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Singing specialists – who would usually be coaching opera singers for stage roles – teach patients how to emotionally connect with the voice, using set design and stage imagery. Participants are then equipped with exercises to practise these techniques in their own time, aided by online resources specifically designed to support their progress.

This isn’t just a nice outreach idea – it’s backed by cold, hard research. Imperial College Healthcare oversaw a six-week pilot, which saw 13 participants who were suffering from breathlessness and anxiety several months after their initial Covid infection trial the proposed activities.

There are reports that music is increasingly effective in relieving stress.”

An independent evaluation reported clear improvements in symptoms and wellbeing, with nearly every patient reporting an overall shift in mood and energy. ENO Breathe hopes to reach 1,000 patients in the next phase, and even more in coming months.

Participating clinics include those based at Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, North Manchester General Hospital, and King’s College Hospital and Homerton University Hospital Foundation Trust in London.

There are reports that music is increasingly effective in relieving stress.

One press release from mygp.com claimed that last year, “music for stress relief has seen a growth of 180 per cent”.

The press release was sent under the subject line “Revealed: Brits are choosing music over meds”, suggesting – with no official evidence provided – that “people are wanting to be less reliant on medication and are turning to music as a coping mechanism”. While there is compelling evidence to support music therapy, it is important to remember this should not replace any prescribed pharmaceutical treatment.

‘Reliance’ is a particularly loaded term, suggesting that the need for medication is shameful, which it clearly isn’t. As powerful as a Beethoven piano sonata is, it is not a cure-all formula on its own – so keep taking any prescribed tablets until a doctor recommends otherwise.

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