Reviews Opera Published 21 August 2020

Review: Opera Helps by Joshua Sofaer

Friendly overtures: Rosemary Waugh writes on her confidence-boosting one-to-one therapy session from an opera singer.

Rosemary Waugh

Opera Helps Online by Joshua Sofaer. Pictured: Caroline Kennedy. Photo: Will Knight

Over the years, I’ve tried a variety of ways to enhance my experience of existing on this planet. An abridged list includes talking therapy, hypnotherapy, old school psychoanalysis (I didn’t Google ‘transference’ pre-session and just wondered why she never, ever said anything), group relaxation classes, guided meditation, acupuncture and pills (various kinds).

During lockdown I’ve particularly leant on the self-administered ‘therapies’ of walking, cycling, yoga, pilates, mini-trampolining and swimming, because I, like Søren Kierkegaard, believe that “If one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right”. Only I switch the word ‘walking’ for ‘moving’, believing that if one just keeps stretching, bouncing, peddling, balancing, breathing and scoring lines through the water, everything will be all right. But above and beyond all this, the therapeutic resource I’ve used most heavily (and perhaps obsessively) to help soothe and energise, calm and rejuvenate is art. Visual art, theatre, dance, music, literature, poetry, large-scale puppetry: you name it, I’ve used it to offset the negative effects of everything from major spinal surgery to being dumped (the latter arguably hurts more, but maybe that’s because no one gives you intravenous morphine for it). My faith in art as a healer is one reason I go to the theatre so much – because if one just keeps entering that empty space, everything will be all right.

Opera Helps is a therapeutic experience based around this same simple belief that art – in this case opera – can help people with their troubles. Established by Joshua Sofaer in 2012 in Stockholm, it first arrived in the UK in 2016. Back then it worked like this: an opera singer would visit a participant in their home, listen to their worries the way a friend would and then sing them an aria that might guide them towards some kind of resolution. It’s now back for autumn 2020 in a lockdown-friendly online version working on exactly the same premise.

The creators, and the opera singers who take part, correctly stress that this is not a stand-in for professional therapy – they are not trained therapists (although they do conscientiously provide guidance on mental health services should you need them) and they can’t promise to ‘solve’ your problem. Instead, they just listen, let you know what aria they’ve chosen and then go ahead and sing it. It kind of sounds ridiculous on first description, but in retrospect (and having tried it) I now sorely wish each of those deathly silent sessions with the psychoanalyst had ended with her hitting the high notes and me bathing in the beauty of an operatic classic.

While making the sessions available to journalists, the organisers request that anyone who takes part shares a genuine problem and, in doing so, engages with the session the same way anyone else would, not as a sort of aloof observer. I chose to talk about feeling held back by a chronic lack of self-confidence. I landed on this because, a) I’m genuinely plagued by this issue and b) Gaining ‘boldness’ is what Sofia in Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is continually exhorted to do and, for whatever reason, that book had been in my head all last week because I suspect that within its covers lies the solution to a great number of the questions circulating in my head at 3am (cf. the power of literature to sort you out). I also thought that it takes a special kind of boldness to have, at some point in your life, said: “Actually, I think I’m going to become an opera singer.” Meaning that whoever I spoke to would be well-placed to advise.

Caroline, the opera singer who kindly gave up part of her Tuesday morning to listen to me mumble circuitously about my lack of straightforwardness, was reassuringly calm, extremely sweet and very patient. After a few Google Duo hiccups during which I forgot how headphones, computers and microphones work, we had a short conversation in which she explained the process (reiterating that it’s not a substitute for professional counselling) and then gave me space to talk for a while. She then announced she’d decided to sing Musetta’s aria [also known as Musetta’s waltz or Quando me’n vo’] from La bohème.

Sung in Act II of Puccini’s Paris-based opera, Musetta’s aria proclaims her own beauty and desirability to a crowd of Latin Quarter drinkers, including her former beau Marcello, whom she wishes to win back. She appears on the scene with Alcindoro, the elderly and wealthy government official who is now nothing more than a source of disinterest. Translated into English, courtesy of Aria database, the lyrics go like this:

When I walk all alone in the street
People stop and stare at me
And look for my whole beauty
From head to feet

And then I taste the slight yearning
which transpires from their eyes
and which is able to perceive from manifest charms
to most hidden beauties.
So the scent of desire is all around me,
it makes me happy!

And you, while knowing, reminding and longing,
you shrink from me?
I know it very well:
you don’t want to express your anguish,
but you feel as if you’re dying!

Bold? Yes. Musetta is basking in the reflected glow of her own radiant, sexy beauty. She knows precisely what she wants (Marcello) and she gets it, pretty swiftly. But Musetta is more than the coquettish sex goddess this scene sets her out to be. Towards the end of the opera, she is instrumental in reuniting the dying Mimi with Rodolfo one last time and, as Caroline explains, contains layers of vulnerability – she just keeps them well hidden.

I think we can all agree that if there’s one thing nicer than having someone sing a personalised aria at you on a rainy morning, it’s having someone sing an aria where the character says, ‘I know how beautiful I am, I know you know I am beautiful, and I know it makes you sad not to possess me and my beauty.’ And when that message is delivered in a lovely, lilting soprano voice travelling directly into your own living room, it’s considerably better than if someone just shouted, “Mate, you’re hot: own it!” at you in toe-curling good faith.

One of the glories of opera is its ability to convey outsized emotions with complete conviction. In that sense the entire artform is a clarion call to boldness. Couple this with the seemingly magical ways music works in the human brain (as this moving account of Clemency Burton-Hill’s ongoing recovery from a brain haemorrhage describes), and it seems almost obvious that a dose of opera – or other artform of your choice – would work as remedy for our holistic ills. Isn’t it just sad, I think as I get ready to go out and sing about how hot I am to a crowd of unsuspecting café-goers, that we live in a time and a place where art is seen as something that’s disposable in moments of crisis, rather than a pathway to joy and healing and togetherness and… yeah. Un bel di.

Opera Helps was first performed in 2012 in Sweden, with Folkoperan, before a UK run in 2016. This online version is free to take part in; apply for your session at https://operahelps.com/

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Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

Review: Opera Helps by Joshua Sofaer Show Info


Directed by Joshua Sofaer

Cast includes Caroline Kennedy

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