In April 2016 Heart of Glass invited applications for Joshua Sofaer's redemptive Opera Helps on its first visit to the UK.
Opera Helps is a site specific art project; professional opera singers visit people in the comfort of their own homes, and sing to them – one to one. It harnesses the power of opera to help with participant's personal problems. Unlike therapy, or a trip to the doctor, it doesn’t aim to cure the problem - but past participants have found the experience deeply affecting, feeling that their private space seems different afterwards.
The project is produced by participatory art producers, Wunderbar and is the creation of Joshua Sofaer, an artist who knows St Helens well after his project Your Name Here saw a park in the town renamed Vera Page Park following a public art competition.
As a passionate opera enthusiast, Joshua found that listening to opera had a direct emotional impact on him. It reached his heart and core very quickly, had a very positive effect on his mood and he came away refreshed. Joshua sees Opera Helps as a way of introducing new audiences to his passion as well as demonstrating the transformative power of song.
‘Historically opera was always a popular art form,’ says Joshua. ‘Even 50 years ago hairdressers in Italy would sing arias as they worked. Yet now it is seen as something highbrow, for the rich and highly educated, inaccessible to most people. By relocating opera to the home and relating it to personal problems I truly think we can introduce people to the music who wouldn’t otherwise have given it a chance.’
Taking part in Opera Helps is an intimate and personal experience. People who have a problem apply to book a session and an opera singer then visits their home. The problem can be anything that they find worrying. The singer listens attentively to the participant's description of their troubles, and then selects a suitable aria to sing. The power of the voice in the domestic space creates an intense and moving experience; the participant hears music in an unfamiliar way, encouraging them to listen attentively, while focussing and reflecting on their individual problem.
This was the first time Opera Helps was presented in the UK. It previously took place in Stockholm, Sweden where Joshua developed the project after being invited to work with the Folkoperan opera house by Artistic Director Mellika Melouani Melani. Here it is produced by Wunderbar, a 'playfully disruptive' art project that takes audiences on 'journeys of intrigue and wonder'. Joshua previously collaborated with Wunderbar on 2009's Tours of People's Homes, creating '12 unique experiences in 12 unique homes.'
'We love working with Joshua.' says Ilana Mitchell, Wunderbar's Artistic Director. 'Opera Helps fits perfectly with our portfolio of audience-led work in unusual spaces – and he's an outstanding artist producing work which, on the surface appears deceptively simple, but is transformative, carrying extraordinary depth and attention to detail.'
After the performance, participants are given a suggested 'opera menu' and a list of places where they can seek further help with their problem if they wish to.
A pool of nine professional singers were being specially trained by Joshua (an accredited Relational Dynamics coach) to listen appropriately and not to offer advice or counselling but to empathise and to ask simple, open questions. The selected singers range from experienced ENO and Wexford singers to recent graduates early in their careers.