Is Opera Good for your Mental Health?

Does opera affect your mental health?

Posted Aug 18, 2014

The last two nights, I went to the Santa Fe Opera. Outside of the dramatic opera hall with sides that open up to the great expanse of northern New Mexico mountains and desert, pink and purple clouds shaped and re-shaped in the sky, bouncing, sailing away, floating back, puffy, painterly, performing a silent, balletic prelude for the audience.

 What happened during the operas I’ll write about below, but it was after the last opera ended that I had a stark, post-performance realization about the link between opera and mental health. Here goes:

 1) The world seems to be spiraling out of control. Everywhere you look, there is oppression, resistance, suffering, violence, greed, corruption. Sometimes it feels overwhelming and hopeless.

And art can be an antidote, particularly in the new opera Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. Buoyed by a score by Chinese composer Huang Ruo it tells the story of the father of modern China, Sun Yat-Sen. Once a doctor, he responded viscerally to the economic, social, and political misery of the Chinese people, quit his practice, and imagined and planned for a revolution that would propel China to peace and prosperity.

The revolution of 1911 overthrew the long-standing, oppressive, feudal regime, and Sun was briefly President, but he resigned when he felt he could not unify the factionalized country. His successor became a brutal tyrant, and Sun was forced into exile. Although the revolution seemed to have failed, Sun never lost his hope and his dreams for the future. Even in the darkest moment, his optimism emerged and continues to light the way for him and his countrymen in the quest that we all have for peace, prosperity, and a better world.

Suddenly, current events seemed less hopeless. The opera helped clarify why revolutions happen—in Tiananmen Square, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria. Although the deposed regime is often replaced by further tyranny and dysfunction, we may have to accept that this is the sweep of history, repeating itself over and over again, and the visionaries who commit to the underlying humanistic values of the revolution will eventually triumph. That is the hope.

The opera calmed the mind, and made me realize that ours is not the worst time in history. And everything changes, in is flux, and goes in cycles. Leaders can arise who lead their nations to a better future. We hope they will hurry up and get here.

2) Many people, fresh out of college or veterans of the work force, feel depressed about their prospects for satisfying employment and economic stability. Wall Street soars, while Main Street sinks.

But I thought about the drama that happened backstage at the Santa Fe Opera before the opening night of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen premiere. The lead tenor, a Chinese singer who played Sun, suddenly dropped out of the performance during final rehearsals. Panic. But wait….there was a young tenor, a second year American apprentice named Joseph Dennis, who stepped into the title role IN MANDARIN. Could he do it? Could he fill those shoes? Could he sing in Mandarin to satisfy a discerning opera audience? He could, he did, and he shone. He conveyed a quiet, personal charisma and his sweet tenor captivated the audience.

Was it fate? Karma? Look at what can happen if you believe that your current employment situation is temporary, you resist depression and projecting out into a bleak future: you may be another Joseph Dennis.

And if you feel you are working too hard, and work is too much of a struggle, think of the entire cast who learned and performed the opera in Mandarin and were rewarded with kudos, standing ovations, and, I hope, excellent job oportunities in the future. Everyone has native talents. The cast of the opera is blessed with heavenly voices. What is your talent? If you are not using it, hmmm, perhaps you should be.

3) Maybe you are weighed down by your roles in life. If you are a teacher, a mother, a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist, a law enforcement agent, a government worker, perhaps you think your job requires gravitas and certain prescribed demeanors and behaviors. Well, come an hour early to the Santa Fe opera and enjoy the free lectures by Oliver Prezant. He doesn’t act like a serious academic, although he is one. He has the audience laughing, singing, and learning by combining information with entertainment. Everyone walks out smiling. How good is that for your mental health?

4) Now for the emotional well-being of artists and creative people. Which of us has NOT experienced the demands of a highly commercialized, often crass, lowest-common-denominator marketplace? Artists make art because they love it—but are forced to shape that art to fit into the gaping, greedy maw of the marketplace. How can opera help one struggle with that?

Enter an unusual double bill that the Santa Fe Opera presented this year: The Impresario (Mozart), and Le Rossignol (Stravinsky).

How in the world do you pair the rigid world of the l8th century Viennese Court (which Mozart suffered from and despised) with the real-life, early 20th century ballet impresario Diaghilev, the brilliantly original ballet dancers and choreographers like Nijinsky and Fokine who were part of his Ballets Russes company, and game-changing artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Coco Chanel with whom he worked?

The answer is: believing in your vision. How about embellishing the first opera, The Impresario, with contemporary dialogue, arias plucked from Mozart’s canon, wonderfully lithe and versatile dancers, glorious singers who are also confident actors, a sure-handed director, and, I swear, presenting a slapstick opera. Some of the shtick, with the addition of a mustache and a cigar, would have worked for the Marx brothers or the Three Stooges, and if you went through your mental rolodex of physical comedians like Jim Carrey, Lucille Ball, Chevy Chase, Chris Farley, or the verbally manic Robin Williams (R.I.P.), any of them would have fit perfectly in this opera, if only they could sing.

Laughter, of course, is healing, but so is the theme of this farcical extravaganza. It’s about the Diaghilev-like Impresario, and his vision of art, and his business manager who only cares about the bottom line. The Impresario is besieged and beleaguered by the curses of the entertainment world: egomaniacal divas, controlling money men, out of control celeb behavior, ruthless competition, sycophants, hangers-on, spiraling costs, and the bottom-line, demands of the box office. Every day, he wants to quit. But what keeps him going, even when his nervous system is collapsing, is his creative vision. He will twist and bend to the demands of the stars and the marketplace, but he will not give up his vision. When was the last time you laughed and winced as you thought about your own vision, and how you shouldn’t give it up no matter what the obstacles are? The message to the soul is clear: You have to believe in yourself and what you are doing.

Le Rossignol, the second opera, is the manifestation of the Impresario’s vision (and the key to how the two operas work together). As concrete, bawdy, and earthy as the first opera is, the second, which takes place in a fantastical limbo with touches of ancient Imperial China, is ethereal, arty, abstract.

The stage is bathed in blue hues and then tinted in red. Rear-screen projections suggest 20th century artists like Picasso, Miro. Surreal images come and go, and a piano is propelled across the stage with an oar. Dancers creep and crawl, and, frankly, it requires a real suspension of disbelief and linear thinking to try to follow the action. But the theme is clear: the Emperor (played by the Impresario) is brought to tears by the nocturnal, dreamy, soulful song of the nightingale. Surrounded by courtiers, he is temporarily seduced by the showy, show-bizzy mechanical nightingale sent to him by the Japanese Emperor. But, as his death draws nigh, and he is plagued by nightmares of his misguided rule, the real nightingale comes to him, bringing him the tears of truth, spiritual connection, and the recognition of the difference between what is true, and what is ersatz. At the end of the opera, the Impresario is back with his mismatched and demanding crew, who are now united by art. He has brought them all together with his unshakeable fidelity to his vision.

Solace comes to the artists in the audience. At the end, art will triumph. There are rewards for the creative person, in any domain, who follows his vision. It is good to breathe in the air of respect for art, talent, and the healing balm of people coming together to inspire, entertain, and somehow make the world better.

5) And of course, there is the music. Music has always been healing for the mind and soul. In the Old Testament, King Saul was beset by what was probably bipolar disorder. The only thing that soothed his troubled soul was music—provided by perhaps the first music therapist—David, who would later become King of Israel.

Any sentient being sitting in the audience at the opera would thrill to the impossible high notes and trills of the sopranos, the robust mastery of the Mezzo, the tenors, the baritones, basses, the chorus, the orchestra, the maestro who conducts in the pit, the daring stretches of the composer, the sounds that reach out into the audience and pull them into a place where all is well, all is in balance.

Opera like this lifts you out of a world of worry into a world of a beauty and possibility. How can that not be healing?

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Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist and author. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us She urges you to go to SantaFeOpera.org, to learn the identities of all the marvelous artists who are unnamed in this post. Ultimately, they are the team of healers.