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The Last Siren: This dementia-friendly night at the opera is making arts more inclusive

The Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory recently staged a free, dementia-friendly production of brand-new opera The Last Siren

The audience at the dementia-friendly opera

The audience join in during The Last Siren. Image: NICK DAW

A visit to the theatre is an occasion for escapism for all of us, which is why it’s especially important to make the arts accessible to as many people as possible. Many venues now offer relaxed performances, whether they are for parents of young children or neurodiverse audiences.  

The Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory at the University of West London, in collaboration with the London College of Music, recently staged a free, dementia-friendly production of brand-new opera The Last Siren at Lawrence Hall. Performed ahead of its world premiere at the Tête à Tête festival in London, this new, modern opera takes a fresh look at the Greek myth from Homer’s Odyssey

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A driving force behind the vision of Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory is to explore ways that people with dementia, and their loved ones, can have more opportunities to enjoy new experiences and to be able to continue to engage with their communities.

Research tells us that the arts provide a fantastic vehicle to do this. Dementia-friendly opera was conceived as a way to make the arts more inclusive while providing an authentic theatrical experience, in line with our ethos that people living with dementia should not only live longer lives, but fun and fulfilled ones. 

The opera itself was created by The Music Troupe, run by composer Edward Lambert, who is constantly seeking ways to bring opera to new venues and new audiences. “Talk about opera usually concerns a small body of work by composers of the past,” says Lambert. “I wanted to show how the repertory can be renewed with contemporary works that are economic to produce and practical to move around.” 

Arlene Belli
Mezzo-soprano Arlene Belli onstage for a performance of The Last Siren. Photo: Nick Daw

The Last Siren was created and produced for a traditional audience, but it is only 40 minutes long, making it bitesized. The music was composed by Lambert, with words by Norman Welch, under the direction of Jenny Weston. The dementia-friendly aspects of the performance we focused on were around safety and comfort. We reassured the audience it was OK to make noise or move around, quiet spaces were available outside the theatre for those who needed them, and refreshments were provided. Our front-of-house staff have experience of engaging with people living with dementia and were drawn from volunteers from the MSc in Dementia Studies provided by the University of West London. 

Before the performance Lambert, alongside the director and two singers, a soprano (Louise Fuller) and mezzo-soprano (Arlene Belli), put on a workshop. It provided background to the story and the events of the opera, and also gave the audience the chance to try their hand at singing, and for the musicians to explain their roles.  

The opera was performed in the round, and once the music started bold images from the story were projected onto a screen behind the performers. When the powerful singing began the audience sat enraptured, mesmerised by the performance, with nobody moving from their seat from beginning to end. “‘It just takes you away, it takes you somewhere,” said Maria, attending the performance alongside her partner Roy. “It’s very hard, (living) with somebody with dementia, and when you hear the music it’s amazing, you just suddenly feel alive.” Another audience member said, “Coming here today has been so good, because the music revives your brain, and provides a surge of a new energy,” while another added, “I’m  just so impressed. The more of this the merrier.” 

Louise Fuller
Soprano Louise Fuller performs at Lawrence Hall in London. Photo: Nick Daw

Our takeaway is that this is an audience that can laugh, sing and smile along as new memories are created for them and their loved ones, and there needs to be more opportunities for them to do so. Our next step at the Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory is to produce a blueprint  so that dementia-friendly opera, or dementia-friendly anything, can be performed anywhere. We hope this will inspire and encourage other performers and productions to make their performance dementia friendly, be it through opening up rehearsals, travelling to underserved venues or hosting events like our own. There is an eager audience waiting for exciting musical performances, and with it the vital opportunity to
destigmatise dementia.

Dr Andy Northcott is senior lecturer in sociology of medicine within the Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory (GIAM) at the University of West London. Claire Jackson is a writer and editor.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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