The power of opera to build community and change lives – Vancouver Opera

The power of opera to build community and change lives

The power of opera to build community and change lives

The  2018 Vancouver Opera Festival was an eight day celebration of The Russian White Nights, featuring mainstage operas and many other activities, and including two performances of Requiem for a Lost Girl. The sold out production featured a combined cast of professionals from Vancouver Opera and performers from the Kettle Society. It was the culmination of a community engagement initiative started by VO in 2015. 

The Kettle Society seeks to support people living with mental illness to lead healthier lives. Bringing these two communities together required a great deal of flexibility, collaboration and consensus building. The learning curve was dramatic. Coreen Douglas, director of fund development and communications at The Kettle, was integral to the process of creating a space in which Kettle participants would thrive artistically. There was a worry that the rehearsal process would be too much. Instead, everyone rose to the occasion. “My lesson from this experience is always be prepared to be surprised”, Coreen told me.

One of the participants from the Kettle agreed to talk about his experience. Jerry came to Requiem through the Jim Green Night at the Opera program. This long standing VO community engagement program provides free tickets to a dress rehearsal and includes preview talks at downtown community centres. At that time, he was a point in his life where his housing situation was problematic and he spent most of his time searching for food. Having the opportunity to attend the dress rehearsal was a surprise to Jerry. “I always thought the opera was reserved for those who already had all their needs met”. The preview talk and the tickets “took me out of the situation I was in and made it accessible to me”. Jerry had always loved singing even though he had never sung with a choir and was curious about what it took to get on the stage.

Jerry decided to join the drop-in jam hosted by The Gathering Place and there he learned about the choir and writing program at The Kettle. The programs, led by teaching artists from Vancouver Opera, felt welcoming and inclusive. Jerry attended regularly. Through this connection, he started to access the other support programs available at the Kettle. Jerry’s role in the production grew and soon he was one of the featured performers. He has a quiet charisma on stage that draws audiences in to his performance. His singing is lyrical and emotional. He found the rehearsal experience exciting. “I was looked after and had somewhere to go everyday”, he said. Working alongside professional musicians also had an impact on Jerry. Their presence gave the Kettle participants the confidence to battle their nerves and focus on their performances. “With the professional singers there, you will be fine”.

After the production closed, Jerry wanted to continue perform. He started a band called Beyond Broke with another cast member. They have performed at a number of small downtown venues. Through his participation in Requiem, Jerry has become more connected to his community and he is not alone. In a post-performance survey, the participants reported a remarkable increase in their mental and physical health as well as a strong sense of connection to others. Other members of the cast now lead weekly drop-in singalongs and assist with the managing of the choir. Jerry has become instrumental in setting the vision of the future of the program.

For Coreen, the inclusion of Kettle participants in deciding the future of the program is integral to its success. “They will be the leaders within the revisioning. Their lived experience will know a whole different direction”. Coreen’s personal goals go beyond the sustainability of the program within The Kettle. She is committed to using this experience to inform the conversation about the role of the arts in addressing homelessness, mental health and the stigma surrounding addiction. Jerry was relieved to learn that the program would continue. He went from wondering about opera singers get to the stage, to being on the stage himself. “All of a sudden, it was actually happening”. 

The cast of Requiem from the Kettle are working on their next production. The Troubadour and the Tallow Candle, composed and written by Lesley Sutherland with writing and music by the Kettle Choir and Writer’s Guild. Their production will debut during the 2019 Vancouver Opera Festival and features Jerry in the lead role. 

Requiem for a Lost Girl was composed by Marcel Bergman and written by Onalea Gilbertson. The positive impact that this project had on everyone involved is significant and serves as motivation for us to enable this work to continue. As with the initial project, the continuation of this work will rely on the generosity of our donor community.

Why should you support our community engagement programs? You believe that everyone should have a voice. You know that small acts of kindness lead to big societal shifts. You want to make a difference—and you can.

By Colleen Maybin, Director Education and Community Engagement