Never too old to learn opera

By Danielle Leonard

Just about everybody loves to sing. Whether it’s belting out a pop song while driving to the grocery store or humming an old favourite tune in the shower, one result is consistent. It makes us feel good.

Unfortunately for most, the opportunities and inclinations to sing in a group setting decline significantly after elementary school when classroom sing-a-longs suddenly seem too juvenile to continue. In fact, by the time we reach middle age, the thought of warbling a tune in public may seem downright ridiculous, if not utterly terrifying.

Yet this is exactly what a group of 150 men and women signed up for in the aptly named program, Opera for All, at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (MNjcc) in downtown Toronto last winter.

Led by visiting artist, maestro Alvaro Lozano Gutierrez, participants were taught opera choruses in Italian and French. The only prerequisite to registering was a desire to sing. During its first ever program, the participants’ who signed up came equipped with skills that ranged from amateur singer to experienced vocalist.

“Last year was our first opera program,” explains program director, Harriet Wichin, assistant executive director of the MNjcc. “It culminated in a big show at Trinity St. Paul which had 600 singers and audience members attend.” Throughout the program she observed the enormous bene- fits reaped by the singers – many of whom had long forgotten the joy of the art.

“I saw 80-year-old singers come out of themselves in a way they haven’t before,” says Wichin. For many, opera is perceived as the pinnacle of singing ability, and the possibility of singing it an impossibility. This may be one of the reasons that Opera for All had such an allure – it made the holy grail of singing accessible to everyone.

Robin Roger, a 64-year-old registered psychotherapist in Toronto, was interested in learning how to sing and thought it would be fun to learn opera.

“We learned famous opera choruses,” says Roger. “And, once you started working on a chorus, you are really working to learn the words and rehearse. There wasn’t a lot of chatting when you showed up to the class. We had to practice 20 minutes every day at home and worked steadily on our song to progress as a group for the final performance.”

Learning a new hobby may not be at the top every person’s list. After all, after a certain point in their lives, many fi nd it easier to stick to the hobbies that they’ve been doing for years rather than start from scratch with something entirely new. Yet trying new activities to create cognitive pathways is key to staying young in body and mind.

From a physical perspective, Wichin notes that posture, breathing and lung capacity all shift as one ages. And the practice of singing uses the affected muscles in new ways to offset some of the negative changes caused by aging.

For Roger, the learning component was particularly rewarding thanks to the maestro’s detailed instruction. “He treated you like you needed to do it properly,” explains Roger. “And, having a performance to prepare for added a palpable but beneficial pressure to the program.”

Opera is known for its fl air for the dramatic. Its stories always feature wide emotional ranges and various moods. As a result, emotional expression is not just encouraged, it is mandated. Participants were therefore asked to connect with the emotion of the song to convey it to the audience.

“You’re allowed to ham it up in opera,” admits Roger. For one song, she explains, “you’re imagining yourself as a slave who has been given your freedom. In another, you’re a gypsy. You have to attach different feelings to each performance.”

A lesser-known benefit to singing is that it facilitates quick bonding among its participants. A 2015 study by the University of Oxford, The ice-breaker effect: singing mediates fast social bonding, discovered that singers experienced much faster bonding than those who gathered for other types of activities. This is no small benefit for those who face increasing isolation as they age. Whether it’s a choir or program such as Opera for All, anyone considering joining a singing group may be relieved to know that the awkward “new person” stage will be short lived.

For Wichin, who was told by many of the participants that they hadn’t sung since high school, the transformation among participants in the program was obvious.

“When you accomplish something in a choir that you couldn’t accomplish on your own, you fall in love with yourself again,” Wichin says. “You see you have potential after maybe getting used to the idea that you were done.”