Updated: Nov 17, 2019
For our third 'SoundUp with Opera North' workshop we looked at the story of The Greek Passion by Martinu.
Today we had our third ‘SoundUp with Opera North’ workshop, drawing inspiration from the opera The Greek Passion in a participatory music and art workshop with musicians from the Royal Northern College of Music.
Again, we brought the workshops out to two community venues in Manchester. We first travelled to Belong Morris Feinmann in Didsbury for our morning session and then to Limelight in Old Trafford for the afternoon.
Our reach this week
*5 community volunteers
*4 care staff
Positive challenges of The Greek Passion
This week we were looking at Martinu's opera The Greek Passion composed between 1954 and 1957. The opera is about the community in a small Greek village, who are preparing to perform a Passion play. As the villagers are casting the play a group of refugees comes to the village. The opera is about the moral dilemma faced by the community. Some want to help the displaced group, whilst others see them as a threat and want them exiled.
This is a rarer opera, one that is quite unfamiliar to the participants we have been working with. The RNCM singers were unfamiliar with the repertoire from the opera, so they performed music from other Passions, along side folk songs and songs in English which related to the musical 'mix-matched' style adopted by Martinu in the piece. We also used this idea of a musical mash-up to inspire a movement and listening activity, which was very dynamic and a lot of fun.
Many of the participants we were working with were Jewish, so rather than focusing on the specific religious content of the opera, we instead focused on the themes the opera presents- and used the story of the opera to inspire our own reflections on what we value most, and what we would share with others in our community if we could.
To make the session more participatory we also drew upon the powerful chorus that this opera features. The opera often is performed by two choruses, one to represent the villagers and the other to represent the refugees. We played with the concept by diving the participants into two groups, and singing a round so as to in effect create our own double chorus. We also ended the workshop with a famous choral piece, changing the lyrics to reflect the themes of community and unity.
What at first looked to be a challenging opera to draw themes, music and ideas from, turned out to be a wonderful piece that sparked very personal reflections, a lot of group participation and many opportunities for singing and movement.
Content of the Workshop
After introducing the singers and musicians that were contributing to the session, we did an overview of Martinu's opera, describing the plot, settings and themes within The Greek Passion.
We first set the scene of being in Greece, in our small village. We asked the participants if they had been to Greece, and to describe the colours, smells, sights, sounds and tastes that they associate with the country. This brought out lots of lovely reflections about areas of Greece that people had visited, and in both venues someone mentioned the cultural tradition of smashing plates. Funnily enough.....we had some plates with us.
This led to our first movement activity, where everyone was given a 'fine china plate' made of paper that they then moved to the familiar Greek song Zorba. The participants had to keep the beat, and react as the music sped up faster and faster. This was great fun, with lots of laughter and comical plate smashing techniques. Everyone got involved, moving in some way, with some participants being very playful with their plates- hitting their legs, arms or heads with great delight. At the end of the song we all 'smashed' our plates to the floor.
Following this James sang 'The Trumpet Shall Sound' from Handel's Messiah, along side Trumpet solos from Nat. We had many participants enjoying the unique sounds of the trumpet in this number.
We then spoke about the music in the opera, and Martinu's composition style. Because Martinu used various styles of music in the opera, we decided to create our own musical mash-up with movement. Ranald played three songs on the piano, each with very different moods and styles. For each song we collectively came up with a dance movement that reflected the feel of the piece. This was great fun, and many participants came up with wonderfully expressive movements. Once we had decided on our three movements, Ranald then played the songs in different orders- 'mashing' them up. We had to listen and do our assigned movement to the song we heard, noticing when the music changed and changing our dance accordingly. One of the songs was the folk song 'My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean' which everyone sang along to.
After this Martina sang 'Quia Respexit' from Bach's Magnificat. We then looked at the set of the opera, using printed images of Opera North's production. We discussed the use of the 43 effigies used in their production design, and how they were made from a life-sized cast of the designer's body. We also discussed the use of two choruses that is often used in the opera. At this point we did a singing activity, where the participants were split into two 'choruses' and learnt and sang a short round. The battle between the two choruses was heated, however in the end I announced a tie between the two groups.
We then did a reflective art activity, where we used the set design of Opera North's The Greek Passion for inspiration. In the opera there are large letters that hang down at the end of the second act reading 'give us what you have too much of' representing the needs of the refugees. Inspired by this plea, we gave each participant a paper 'effigy' and asked them to reflect on what they valued most, what brought them joy, or what they would share with others in need.
The responses to this activity were deeply heart felt, some are listed below:
*enjoying singing with my friends
*laughing, singing, joking
*time, humility, kindness, patience
*a hug and a kiss
*the love for my family
*love, love, love
*games, songs, dance, laughter
*the love that music brings
*my chicken soup
As I assembled these onto a collective board, Jordan performed 'Lord God of Abraham' from Elijah.
I then presented the finished community sharing board with the group, reading out some of the effigies that people had written.
Martina and Jordan then sang a well-known love song, 'If I Loved You' from Carousel.
To finish we sang the Hallelujah chorus with changed lyrics to reflect the theme of community that we focused on in the session:
'Sing together, sing together,
Our voices are one.'
Feedback from participants
This week we collected written feedback from participants, which the singers collected with participants after each session, giving them a chance to chat, mix and help people record their opinions of the session.
'When I come here, before I am down, as soon as I'm here I'm so happy.'
'It was absolutely perfect.'
'I just feel so relaxed.'
'I liked everything today!'
'I feel peaceful.'
'This gets me out of the flat and mixing with people, it felt good.'
'My favourite part was remembering the good old songs from childhood.'
'I feel elated.'
'I feel happy, terrific, transported to another world.'
'The Messiah piece made me think of the people I sang it with long ago.'
Feedback from the RNCM singers
1. How would you describe your experience as a performer/volunteer in this session?
Singer One: Enlightening and enriching- I am not terribly extroverted so working around the room to connect to the participants and finding the right approach and energy for each interaction was interesting and useful.
Singer Two: I really enjoyed connecting with the participants during the group activities. It was fun and meaningful.
Singer Three: Rewarding, I had enormous fun and loved engaging with the participants.
2. Was there a particular highlight in your session?
Singer One: Getting the participants drawn into the plate dance and seeing how they still kept the tempo and were drawn in.
Singer Two: When Mrs F agreed to dance with me. She seemed so withdrawn at first, but really responded when I held her hands and moved with the music, she smiled and laughed.
Singer Three: The group creative task. It got everyone involved.
3. Did you learn anything, or gain something from volunteering?
Singer One: Confidence performing in a care setting and in my ability to communicate.
Singer Two: Seeing how Lucy made sure to include everyone, calling people by their names, was very inspiring, and something I would like to get better at.
Singer Three: Yes, I love hearing people's experiences and gain a great sense of groundedness for bringing art closer to those who love it.
Singer One: It has been a very good use of my time, and projects like this should certainly happen more often.
Singer Two: Changing focus from storytelling and everyone listening, to group discussion and activity to performance- created a very dynamic feeling, it felt like we had achieved something important when it was finished.
Singer Three: This is a fantastic project.
About the performers
It was wonderful to have such talented singers from the Royal Northern College of Music performing and facilitating in the session today. We were delighted to welcome Martina Starr-Lassen, Jordan Harding Pointon and James Mitchell. We also were joined by Ranald McCusker on the piano and Nat Martin on the horn.
Every singer working on this project was trained by SoundUp Arts before the workshop, taken through a 2 hour Music Facilitation for People With Dementia training course.
I would like to say again a huge thank you to the singers, musicians, volunteers, care staff, venues, and participants who all made the workshop so special. I have to say this seemed the most challenging of the operas to draw inspiration from, but in the end we had a really wonderful week and that was all down to the generosity, kindness and openness of all the people involved in this project. And another huge thank you to Opera North, The Royal Northern College of Music and Together Dementia Support whose partnerships have made this workshop series possible.