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TWO: Puccini wrote an opera

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

In our second 'SoundUp with Opera North' workshop we brought La Boheme to life.

Today we had our second ‘SoundUp with Opera North’ workshop, bringing to life the opera La Boheme 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.

This week we reached

*63 participants

*2 venues

*3 care staff

*11 family carers

We were supported by

*7 musicians from the RNCM

*1 visual artist

*5 community volunteers

*1 videographer

Content of the workshop

We started the session today with the ‘opera in a nutshell’. Using character signs and some simple costume pieces the singers reenacted the story line of the opera to give participants an introduction to the plot.

Because the story starts on Christmas eve, we did a signing warm up to set the mood, with everyone joining together to sing Nat King Cole’s ‘Let is Snow’.

With the scene set, Dasha performed Mimi’s aria, explaining Mimi’s character at the opening of the opera, and what she is saying to Rudolfo in this scene.

We then explored the set, looking at images from Opera North’s production. The whole stage for La Boheme is outlined by a large white frame, as if the action takes place in a polaroid picture or on a canvas. We looked at all the motifs of art that are peppered throughout the production design, such as the graffiti on the outside wall, the paint splattered artist’s studio and the huge blue painting that sets the backdrop for the scenes in Cafe Momus. We related these motifs of art and painting to the message that the opera expresses about the importance of art and love, and the power these have to keep us going despite the cold, illness or money problems.

We were delighted to be joined by special guest artist Caroline today, who brought the painter’s studio to life for us. Caroline set up a large easel, and then painted live as James performed ‘L’ultima Canzone’. She used the text, musical line and mood to inspire her painting.

The participants were then invited to join in the painting, and were given a card and paint-pens to create their own artwork inspired by the music. For this section Nat and Ranald played ‘Misty’ on the horn and piano, a very relaxing and meditative part of the session. At the end of the section we collated all the participant’s artworks and displayed them in our own mini exhibition for everyone to see the artistic talent across the room.

We then left the ‘artist’s studio’ moving to Cafe Momus, another location that La Boheme takes place in. We described the atmosphere of Cafe Momus as a dusty, smoky 1960s cafe, full of entertainers, artists and bohemians. We asked the participants to imagine coming to Cafe Momus with us. What kind of things might we be drinking? ‘Champaign’ someone called out, ‘tea!’ someone else yelled. And what would we be eating? ‘Snails!’ someone offered, ooh yes very French people muttered. There was a pause ‘CRISPS’ someone yelled loudly to a roar of laughter- it seems the British palette will follow us all the way to Paris on this occasion!

We then did a prop handling exercise, using materials from the Royal Norther College of Music’s props department. We offered around a range of Parisian, cabaret-cafe style items, including an old Camera, fake cigarettes and pipes, champagne bottles, stage candles and paper money. The facilitating singers moved around the room, helping participants to explore and try out the props, asking them questions about their responses to the objects. This section was a lot of fun, and many people expressed great surprise at being able to hold the old camera and look inside the mirrored lens. Many were delighted by the wads of cash, and made lots of jokes about the riches they could buy if only it was not stage money. Others had a play with old fashioned perfume bottles, or the lace and feather fans and it was great to see participants having fun with each other during this activity. Many people spoke about the familiarity of the items, such as the pipe or the candle holders, with one lady very proud to be able to identify the type of camera as a Brownie.

After this we were treated to two wonderful cabaret performances in our very own Cafe Momus. The first was from Hannah who sang ‘La Diva De L’Empire’ by Satie, using the big black hat and the feathered fan to bring out the diva’s character (she first however had to ‘borrow’ these back from a lovely participant who was very taken with the ensemble!). Following this we sung an Edith Piaf song ‘La Vie en Rose’ together, with everyone given lyrics sheets with english text. The chorus of sound made from all the participants was magnificent. We sang the song twice as it was such a joy to get to sing so passionately together. Many participants sang wonderfully loudly, supported by the other voices in the room. I noticed one lady near me singing so vibrantly during the section that at the end I gave her a compliment at how brilliantly I heard her singing, she smiled brightly and called out ‘that’s the first time I’ve been told that’. Our second cabaret performance was by Jordan who sang ‘La Mer’, a wonderfully engaging and performative piece. Many participants clicked or sang along, and we handed out percussion instruments and scarfs to participants so they could contribute more through movement. At this point, a very frail lady who had in the past week been slightly agitated in the session, got to her feet and started to sing and dance, waving the coloured scarf in front of her. This was wonderful to see, and she got a big round of applause and support from the other participants and carers around her.

Finally we sang some new lyrics to the opening part of Rudolfo's famous aria ‘Che Gelida Manina’. Our new summed up the session and the themes the opera expresses:

‘Puccini wrote an opera,

about a love so pure.

Mimi, Rudolfo

their love it will endure.’

We sang these new words a few times, making our voices loud and full of emotion for the height of the phrase on ‘Mimi’ which many participants liked emphasising.

At the end of this session our videographer Hallam interviewed some participants, carers and staff to gain an insight into the responses people had after the sessions. Below are some quotes Hallam captured on film. Hallam will be making a project video about the workshop series which you will be able to view on the SoundUp website in late December.

Feedback from participants

‘I just loved it!’

‘I was quite down before, and now I am…….up.’

‘Joy. It was just joy.’

‘That was very, very good.’

‘The singing was first class.’

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 visual artist Caroline Bordignon. The singers were Hannah Boxhall, Dasha Papysheva, Jordan Harding Pointon, James Mitchell. We also were joined by Ranald McCusker on the piano and Nat Martin on the horn.

Accompanying us today was Hallam Fulcher a videographer from the RNCM.

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.

Thank you

I would like to say again a huge thank you to the singers, musicians, artists, volunteers, care staff, venues, and participants who all made the workshop so special. 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.

This painting was donated to Belong Morris Feinmann after the workshop, to keep as a memento of the project.

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