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Singing and Dementia Reflections - Opera and Dementia

May 2023 - "Songs from Italy"

Last month's singing sessions were themed around "Songs from Italy", including all the great 50s hits from Dean Martin... That's Amore, Mambo Italiano, and Volare. Despite my initial nerves, I also included two operatic arias in the sessions, and they went down a treat!

Research has shown that those living with dementia often struggle with sudden, very loud sounds, and high pitches. Hearing aids can also become uncomfortable if they aren't on the correct setting for music. All of this does not bode well for opera! I have avoided singing high notes (anything above an F) until now, but I decided to be brave last month, and take two opera arias into my care home and dementia café sessions. Opera is such a beautiful and powerful genre which so many people connect to, so I didn't want it to be missed out from the repertoire.

O Mio Babbino Caro

The first aria was Puccini's stunning "O Mio Babbino Caro" (Oh my beloved Father) from Gianni Schicchi. I sang this very gently and quietly, so that the top notes wouldn't stand out and cause any distress. (A very good practice for my singing technique and legato!)

The reactions were just beautiful! Almost every single person last month smiled and recognised the aria, several even closed their eyes or opened their mouths wide in anticipation of the high notes. A lady in one community day centre I visited, was initially quite agitated and even told me to "Be quiet!" when I first arrived and introduced myself... yet when this aria began, she sat bolt upright in her chair, leant forward, and started to "tra la la" along with me. I went and knelt before her and her eyes lit up! I spoke to the lady afterwards and asked her if she'd been to watch some operas, unfortunately she had lost the majority of her verbal communication, so I listed a few composers (Mozart, Strauss, Puccini) and, at the mention of these names, she smiled and nodded.

Libiamo ne'lieti calici

The second aria was the famous drinking song from Verdi's La Traviata "Libiamo ne'lieti calici". As soon as this started to play everyone knew it and started to bounce their hands to the beat!

Opera Birthday Party

At the weekend, I was invited to a care home to sing for a lovely lady's 92nd birthday party celebration, and her favourite music was opera. We had a "first half" of opera arias, and a "second half" of singalongs. The way she connected with the opera was just magical! Her eyes lit up and she almost seemed to hold her breath.

From avoiding singing opera at all costs in care home settings, for fear that the sheer intensity would cause distress or agitation, I have now sung lots of opera in care homes and the reactions to this beautiful genre have been amazing!


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