Seventy performers, including a choir of twenty stroke survivors and a Shout at Cancer choir consisting of eleven people who had their voice boxes removed as a result of throat surgery were joined by Garsington adult community chorus to perform live on the stage at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Their live performances were delivered in conjunction with a series of intimate films from hospital wards across London and Buckinghamshire. Garsington Opera is developing its work in healthcare contexts in partnership with Rosetta Life and the performance was directed by Karen Gillingham, creative director of Garsington Opera Learning and Participation. Composed by Orlando Gough, Hospital Passion Play was a remarkable project that wove stories of rehabilitation, from those who have had a brain or spinal injury, into an opera that is a part of Rosetta Life’s three-year arts-into-health intervention Stroke Odysseys (www.strokeodysseys.org).
The partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum grew out of a longstanding recognition that not only do the collections offer a resource that can stimulate the imagination and promote wellbeing, but the extraordinary buildings that museums occupy also offer venues for performances that can develop the confidence and self-esteem of vulnerable people and also support challenging the stigma of illness.
Hospital Passion Play was conceived in relation to the exhibition Opera: Passion Power and Politics. The curators sought to show how radical and innovative the art-form of opera had been and in the performance we sought to test the limits and potential of technology, not only integrating recorded song and live choirs but also live streaming the performance through Facebook back to the hospital wards.
The libretto was curated rather than written, across five hospital wards we worked with patients to generate the songs and the stories that became the libretto for the opera. For instance, in one workshop at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital a frail middle aged lady said, “Back home in the Caribbean, in the darkness after sunset appears The Lady of the Night. It gleams white in the moonlight, a flower that only opens in the dark, beautiful it smells like hope”, This became a beautiful solo signalling the transition from trauma to recovery. In another instance, patients who had been discharged were able to take centre stage. Their stories held the central threads of the story and we partnered three patients and ex-patients with professional soloists who became their doppelgangers, singing the stories that the patients had lived. Spyros, for example, who had seventeen operations for throat cancer and still could not speak heard his doppelganger sing his words “My ears still have the echo of the sound of my voice. I’m still willing to try, I’m still willing to try to make a sound”.
The performance was a remarkable occasion and once it ended the audience remained in the space, mesmerized by the intimate stories they had witnessed and staying to talk to the performers and understand more about the processes. This was reflected in the audience evaluation. 100% of those that feedback to us, gave the performance a five-star review, rating the performance and its content excellent. Of the themes identified by the audience in their comments about the piece, most significant was the understanding of the challenges people face with disability “I understood some things about disability”, “I’ve definitely improved my human skills and my understanding and awareness of different life situations.” “I understand the frustration that sufferers and those with an impairment experience”. While another commented “I loved the emotional strength, the will to recover and adjust after serious illness – very moving”. Another theme was the importance of the inclusivity of the performance and how significant this was to developing understanding. We were delighted that Hospital Passion Play was clearly able to demonstrate the ability of performance to promote understanding of disability and impairment and an awareness of the long road to recovery.
The success of the project has led to plans to develop the work and restage it next year at Bush House, London in October 2018.
You can watch the live-streamed performance on the V&A’s Facebook page:
Guest blog by Lucinda Jarrett, Rosetta Life