Creating an Opera to Remember

SFO_Dance2When Black Bart was forced to choose between a ghost and a dancer, then suffered an untimely death, but was brought back to life by a genie, what was the moral of the story?

“Love conquers all. Love is eternal.”

That’s according to participants in the latest Community-in-Residence program held last month at the Santa Fe Opera and supported by the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project and the Academy for the Love of Learning’s Lifesongs program. The New Mexico History Museum began working with Gary Glazner and the Alzheimer’s project several years ago, inviting people with memory illnesses and their care partners into the museum to enjoy an hour of creative poetry, music and dance inspired by our exhibits.

Last year, we held a daylong conference on ways to use the arts to reach such people, which inspired other local arts organizations to collaborate on Community-in-Residence. The program offers occasional events at venues that have included the Museum of International Folk Art and Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

SFO_CurtainCallSeptember’s, though, was the first to include an honest-to-goodness opera singer, Maya Rose Tweten, who sang in French about finding love in nature—easy to believe, given the mountain view from the opera’s patio. Glazner built on how she inspired participants, drawing out their ideas for an opera, which quickly turned into the wacky tale of Black Bart. At its heart, though, was a serious effort at finding ways to evoke memories in people who are losing touch with theirs.

“What do we think of as memory?” Glazner asked in a training session for volunteers before the event. “Does anyone have a smell that transports them?”

One person named the geraniums that were blooming the day her father died. Glazner asked her to describe what was happening that day, what the town looked like, how precisely did the flowers smell?

“Now imagine a person with memory loss, who’s losing the ability to describe and articulate what that smell means,” he said. “What’s going on? What might it be like for us? At what point are we still people?”

By combining that measure of empathy with artistic enthusiasm, the session that followed brought forth a cathartic hour of laughter, poetry and song. , the History Museum will host our second Creativity in Aging conference to continue this important work.