How Leeds-based Opera North is working to make the arts more accessible for people with dementia

Opera North will be soon holding its first dementia-friendly performance, believed to be the first by an opera company in England.
Opera North will be soon holding its first dementia-friendly performance, believed to be the first by an opera company in England.

Opera North is staging a dementia-friendly performance of its forthcoming production La bohème, in Leeds. Laura Drysdale finds out more.

Eric Chappell recalls fondly one of the stand out music concerts from his younger years. “One of the first ones I went to was Shirley Bassey at the Victoria Hall in Halifax. It was marvellous. We used to get a lot come to Halifax,” he says.

The 77-year-old resident of Simon Marks Court care home in Leeds is engaged in a conversation about music, reflecting, too, on his time jiving, twisting and waltzing in West Yorkshire’s dance halls.

It is the first time that Eric has opened up to the manager of the home, which provides residential care for elderly people and specialised services for those with dementia, about that aspect of his past.

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“We learnt quite a lot from Eric in just a short space of time as a result of him being engaged in that conversation around music,” Sharon Buckland says. “It’s the same with anyone really. It’s about encouraging that information from somebody.”

Opera North's production of La boheme runs at Leeds Grand Theatre next mont. Picture submitted by Opera North and credited to Guy Farrow.

Opera North's production of La boheme runs at Leeds Grand Theatre next mont. Picture submitted by Opera North and credited to Guy Farrow.

The power of music in elderly and dementia care is an increasingly documented phenomenon that can help to enhance quality of life. Its wide-ranging effects include reducing anxiety and depression, supporting speech and language, inspiring movement, triggering memories and boosting social relationships.

Such benefits, and a drive to improve arts accessibility, have prompted a new partnership between the home and Opera North, as the latter strives to make its programme more inclusive.
It has this week launched a new project in the home, running three sessions focused on music and creative activities.

The scheme, which will also run at a dementia cafe and a peer support service for those living with the condition, will include singing, songwriting and props from the 1960s, the era in which Opera North’s upcoming La bohème production is set.

“People with dementia might not always remember the activity,” explains Jo Bailey, a wellness coordinator for care homes provider Anchor. “But it leaves them with a nice feelgood feeling.”

From left: Alice Gilmour, Access Officer for Opera North; Alex Bradshaw, Lifelong Learning Manager for Opera North;  Jo Bailey, Wellness Coordinator for Simon Marks Court Care Home; Sharon Buckland, Care Home Manager; and Eric Chappell, a resident at the home.

From left: Alice Gilmour, Access Officer for Opera North; Alex Bradshaw, Lifelong Learning Manager for Opera North; Jo Bailey, Wellness Coordinator for Simon Marks Court Care Home; Sharon Buckland, Care Home Manager; and Eric Chappell, a resident at the home.

“It can have a really big impact on relations too,” adds Alex Bradshaw, Opera North’s early years and lifelong learning manager. “The person living with dementia and their carers enjoy something together and have a lovely experience and then that carries on.”

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Residents at the home are planning to be among those attending a dedicated dementia-friendly performance of La bohème at Leeds Grand Theatre in October. Believed to be the first of its kind in England, it will include low level lighting in the auditorium throughout and reduced bright lights and noises.

There will also be a quiet room, a relaxed approach to audience members coming and going, increased signage and the cast and Opera North staff will all be offered Dementia Friends training beforehand.

“In the opera world these kind of performances are quite rare,” says Alice Gilmour, access officer for Leeds-based Opera North. “But the cast and director all seem extremely enthusiastic and excited about the idea. Anyone who knows someone with dementia thinks it is fantastic.”

“It’s so important, both in opera and in day-to-day life, that we strive not to alienate people living with conditions or illnesses such as dementia,” adds Lorna James, a soprano in the production’s chorus.

“There are so many ways in which we can adapt what we do rather than excluding people for not being able to experience things in the way they’ve always been done.”

Michael Barker-Caven, the Revival Director for La bohème agrees.

"As my own mother passed away as a direct result of Alzheimer’s disease, I’m acutely aware of the impact on individuals and families of dementia," he says.

"But equally I am aware how much quality of life can be greatly improved by creating opportunities for sharing and caring - and what better way than by offering the chance to attend such a wonderful opera in a suitably prepared environment which is sure to bring up many cherished memories of youthful romance.

"I’m delighted that Opera North have taken this bold and necessary step to enable access and inclusivity and I know the artists and my production team are really looking forward to welcoming all those who attend."

The show is part of an Opera North push to increase accessibility and La bohème, with its “easy to understand” storyline, following a group of artists living in poverty in 60s bohemian Paris, was deemed to be the perfect choice to set the wheels in motion.

“We strongly believe the arts is valuable to everyone,” says Alice. “It’s sad to think of someone missing out, so it’s about making things more inclusive. There’s such a strong link between music being a powerful tool for bringing people joy or reawakening memories.”

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“It doesn’t matter how advanced dementia is, music brings something out in people,” Sharon adds. “It will trigger something, whether it’s just them tapping a foot or tapping their hand or actually speaking and singing, it’s meaningful engagement to that person. It’s amazing to see.”

La bohème runs at Leeds Grand from October 12 to 26, with the dementia-friendly matinee performance on October 24. Visit operanorth.co.uk