Music as Medicine
When we think of the art of opera, we may think of lush, embroidered melodies, ornate costumes, and stories told in languages we may not understand. At its most basic level, however, the art of singing opera is simply about controlling the ability to breathe. Air over the vocal cords creates lustrous sound, and even more air amplifies and sustains that sound as it exits the mouth. In other words, while opera can certainly elevate the spirit, it also is rooted in one of the body’s most basic functions. This idea—that music can be an essential part of healing, in a holistic sense that is linked to both our physical and mental well-being—is at the heart of LA Opera’s health, wellness, and recovery programs.
The company’s commitment to these activities reflects its profound belief that, as a nonprofit arts organization, it exists to serve the Los Angeles community. This includes not just the presentation of high-quality opera performances—Don Giovanni and The Barber of Seville are highlights of this year’s season—but also the power of opera as a vehicle to meet other community needs.
Tehvon Fowler-Chapman helms Connects, the company’s community engagement and learning department. As he explained, “Everything we do at LA Opera is for the community, right? It’s part of the idea of social impact within an opera company. When we are talking about community service and social impact, it is more or less saying the art is fantastic, but it is not the center. It is the catalyst for serving something that is greater than itself, the community.”
Under the umbrella of Connects, the company’s health-related activities are diverse, ranging from one-on-one bedside hospital visits with Alzheimer’s patients and patients with traumatic brain injuries to online breathing workshops for those facing pulmonary issues, such as Long COVID and asthma. The company also works with military veterans suffering health challenges by hosting post-performance conversations where opera is a jumping off point to encourage participants to share their own stories and develop a sense of connection to a larger community.
“Now that we have looked at wellness in a more holistic way, we’re thinking about our education programs beyond the fact that they teach people about opera. They also give people a chance to connect as a community and to engage in art making. Those two things in themselves are therapeutic and help people not just make sense of the world but also help them in ways that we would not have thought about in terms of well-being,” explained Fowler-Chapman.
To develop and facilitate its health, wellness, and recovery programs, LA Opera works with a number of health care partners, including Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) Health, and the Mindful Veteran Project. “We don’t do this in a vacuum. It is done in partnership with health care professionals,” Fowler-Chapman acknowledged. “So the other important thing for us is being receptive to the feedback from our health care partners.”
Fowler-Chapman views the company’s wellness activities as giving the community another way to connect with the company, one that builds a personal relationship even if someone doesn’t consider themselves an opera lover. “Our music and mindfulness programming is trying to give the space for people to actually use music as their own catalyst. It doesn’t feel like we have to be the center of it, but we’re actually giving them tools to process the things that they are doing,” he said.
Nani Sinha, a longtime teaching artist with LA Opera, is certified as a trauma-informed instructor and provider as well as additionally certified by the National Association of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Caregivers and Practitioners. Like Fowler-Chapman, Sinha believes that arts organizations have a powerful role to play in supporting community health and wellness efforts. She said, “I think it is so important that the opera get involved, or any arts organization get involved, because music is inherently human. Music is important for brain health and for physical health, and the fact that LA Opera recognizes that and champions this is so important.”
Having suffered a life-changing accident that initially left her paralyzed and unable to sing, Sinha has experienced firsthand how her training as an opera singer helped her recover not just emotionally but physically. “One of the doctors at UCLA, Dr. Nida Qadir, who is on the pulmonary team there, she said, ‘Opera singers are the Olympian athletes of breathing…. Who better to [to teach breathing] than an opera singer?’”
Inspired by her own medical experience as well as a similar program by the National English Opera, Sinha and fellow LA Opera Teaching Artist Michele Patzakis worked with UCLA Health to develop a six-week workshop, which can be held over videochat, to help pulmonary patients with their recovery. Each session includes mindfulness work, gentle movement, and breathing exercises, as well as the singing of simple songs such as nursery rhymes.
“The more that we learn about the human body, the brain and disease and healing, the more that we are realizing that it’s not just about medicine, that music and art and dance…help us down regulate the nervous system and help increase serotonin and feeling good,” said Sinha. She added, “Singing is not for special occasions only. It’s a part of nervous system reset. It’s a part of mental health. It’s a part of physical health.”
Through Connects, LA Opera also convenes arts and civic leaders, medical practitioners, teaching artists, arts and music therapists, and others for an annual Los Angeles County Arts and Health Week Summit aimed at building connections among those working at the intersection of arts and health and sharing knowledge. NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson participated in the 2023 summit this past June; the summit focused on creative aging and included participants such as Renée Fleming and Christopher Bailey of the World Health Organization.
As Fowler-Chapman described, “So many people, not just in Los Angeles but in the country, practice forms of music in therapy and arts in therapy and arts as therapy. But we rarely meet together to talk about the shared challenges and opportunities that exist. Arts and Health Week was more or less created to actually bring people into the room to share ideas, to talk about both [theory and practice] so that we can all walk away from this feeling as though we are gaining new knowledge, gaining new contacts, having the ability to make the world that we exist in a little bit smaller but in a way that we can expand on the impact that we provide through these programs.”
He also said that the summit can help redefine what falls under the mantle of the healing arts. For example, at the most recent summit, a martial arts practitioner made the point that while the martial arts are considered a sport, they also include mindfulness and healing elements. Fowler-Chapman noted, “As an asthmatic but also a black belt in Taekwondo, I recognized that there are meditative practices through the art of movement. Tai Chi is all about centering and mindfulness.”
It goes without saying that investing in community-focused activities has the added benefit of helping the company to build its audience. Still, Fowler-Chapman said that there’s much more at stake than ticket sales. “There’s always going to be a need for us to sell tickets, but I think the bigger part of when we’re talking about being a nonprofit organization, we’re talking about being a cultural institution,” he said. “There is the importance of filling the need of the community because that is where I believe nonprofits are meant to exist, where the needs are.”