How I got converted to Opera

I was dreading the Opera Workshop at the library, but as the chairperson of the Friends of Redcar Library group – and because only one other person had signed up for the workshop – I felt it my duty to support it. I can’t sing (at all), and the thought of trying to hit high notes in the middle of the library made me cringe. But, I went along thinking that if nothing else at least I was a fine, upstanding member of the community. I talked my sister, Lindsey into coming too – it was my birthday after all! But I could tell she was thinking ‘what the hell am i doing?’.

There were two people setting up in the meeting room as we arrived, a lady behind a massive keyboard and a cool looking American bloke (I’m sorry but I’m terrible with names). Another lady turned up – so there was three of us ‘outsiders’, and then two other members of the Streetwise Opera group had got the bus over from Middlesbrough to get involved.

I asked them what it was all about, they told me that in 2000, a guy called Matt Peacock was volunteering at a homeless shelter called Passage, and one of the residents read out a comment in the paper that a politician had made: “The homeless are the people you step over coming out of the Opera House”. Well, it just so happened that Matt was also an Opera critic, and this comment really pissed him off , but also motivated him to work with residents of the homeless shelter to put on their own version of The Little Prince at the Royal Opera House. The idea was to challenge people’s perceptions of homelessness.

The performance was critically acclaimed and a massive success and afterwards the performers asked ‘what next?’ and so the Streetwise Opera initiative was set up. There are now groups all over the world.  An inspiring story!

I confessed that the closest I’d come to opera is watching Julia Roberts being whisked off to one by Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. They laughed and said they’d heard that a few times.

“So how do you entice people into opera if they have no interest in it?”

One of the Streetwise Opera members who’d got the bus from Middlesbrough spoke up. She said that when she was relatively new to the area (her home being in Africa) – a friend convinced her to come along to a meeting and she’s been going every Friday since. “It was like being part of a family” she said. And that is one of the initiative’s biggest aims – to help people to feel included and supported by a community. She even gets to sing songs from her own village, as do many of the others – sharing their cultural songs with one another only serves to deepen their bonds.

Before I could ask anymore questions one of the group leaders sang a theatrical line in an operatic voice while clicking her fingers and then nodded at us that we should repeat. Because it was so spur of the moment it caught me off guard and before I could even think-  I was doing opera, as were the others. I think it was the sheer surprise of hearing someone in real life singing opera-style right in front of me that caused my brain to short circuit and my mouth to just start singing. It was amazing. (I wasn’t amazing – but at least my voice was blended with the others so it wasn’t so noticeable). We all got right into it, marching about, plucking a rose from the sky and pulling it down as though it was still attached to something up there, while singing “Tor-eee-a dooooorrr, she wants your looooove.” – a line from the  famous opera called Carmen (we did a short version of this opera during our session – it’s basically about this really gorgeous woman that every man falls in love with, she causes loads of trouble and then dies).  I played the matador and stood in the middle of a circle holding an imaginary cloak while the others marched around me singing their hearts out. I haven’t smiled or laughed that much in ages.

It was interesting watching the general library goers and council staff walking past the door, peering in at us and then carrying on with a confused look on their face. Some of them kept walking past as if they were doing errands but really they wished they were in with us I think. I was kind of glad to have my back to the door all the same. The point of the meeting room door being left open was to show members of the public that you don’t have to be intimidated by the rule of silence that usually shrouds a library. There can be a bit of both. And also that everyone is encouraged to try singing opera. You don’t have to be posh or cultured.

The voices of the members of the Streetwise Opera made the hairs on my arms stand on end and left me  speechless at times. It was because their voices were so opera-ish and amazing, and that they were so relaxed about singing from their heart that we were able to just go with it too.

So, to end this story – I’m so glad I went along to this workshop. It opened my mind massively and it was the best start to my birthday celebrations. Me and Linz will be going along to their next event at Middlesbrough Central Library  on Friday 13th June – 7-8pm (joining in is optional) which says a lot considering we were both so unsure to start off with. Even if you don’t fancy getting involved in the actual singing, I’d highly recommend you try and watch them perform sometime.

Check out their website here: http://www.streetwiseopera.org/workshops/middlesbrough

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Depression is Not a Dirty Word

You don’t have to believe in depression to get it. You can just catch it while you’re going about your normal life minding your own business. In 2003, I was 23 with my own place, dashing good looks, a long-term relationship, new car and had just got a promotion at work.

Despite all of that, a feeling of deadness started creeping up on me. I remember walking to and from work and thinking how grey everything seemed. I’d sit at my desk and look out of the window at the sky wondering what the point to life was. I kept thinking that everyone was going to die at some point – when would it be? Who would die today? (Probably didn’t help that I lived opposite a graveyard) I was on hyper alert for tragedy to strike me at any moment.  I tried to work out what it was that didn’t feel right with my life anymore, was it my relationship? Was it the small town I lived in? Was it me? Was I just a horrible, ungrateful specimen who didn’t deserve all the good people in my life? I felt so guilty just for breathing. My head seemed constantly preoccupied with the question: ‘What is wrong with me?’

The funny thing is, I had just started doing an Open University degree in Psychology, and one of the first instalments of my reading was about the symptoms of depression. Although I could tick every one of those boxes – lethargy, loss of enjoyment in things I usually liked, sleep problems, changes in appetite, irritable, tearful, loss of hope, feelings of despair – I still couldn’t (wouldn’t) allow myself to identify with the word depression. Depression was for weaker folk. Depression was for people who didn’t know how to stay positive. Depression was for addicts and for people who had suffered deep trauma. Depression was for people who didn’t have a job or friends. Nope, I wasn’t depressed.

Then the greyness changed into something else – I felt manic, like something needed to change and fast, only I didn’t know what. I got up from my desk at work one day and asked for an emergency half day holiday. My request was accepted and without consciously thinking about it, I found myself in Saks hairdressers asking the stylist to cut my long thick hair into “a Kylie”. The popstar Kylie Minogue was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer and had just had all of her hair cropped to a centimetre short. They tried to talk me out of it “Why not get a concave bob instead?” I could see them behind me in the mirror, looking at each other like I was crazy – I mean, who asks for “a Kylie crop”? The woman had cancer. They cut it off and as I walked back through the High Street of my small town, my own Gran walked past me without giving me a second glance. The novelty of the shock factor got me through the next couple of weeks. People I’d known all my life didn’t recognise me until I went up to them, colleagues patting me on the back and saying how brave I was (short hair wasn’t a cool thing back then). But then the greyness came back with even more force than before.

One day I walked into my sister’s shop and burst into tears. When she calmed me down I told her I just wanted to drive off a cliff. I didn’t even know myself anymore. I started shoplifting. It made me feel alive for maybe ten minutes. I drank to the point of unconsciousness, drove my car into a wall, hit my boyfriend with a curtain pole. The rock bottom day came when I went to pay for some petrol and just broke down crying to the baffled cashier. I didn’t say a word, just stood there balling my eyes out. When I got home I sank down the wall to the floor (like you see in films) and said to my boyfriend that I didn’t know what to do anymore. He said “you need help. Go to the doctors”. There was nothing left to do but go. I didn’t want to lose him.

The doctor was nice and understanding. I told her about everything I was feeling and doing and she said “You have depression”. She prescribed me some medication and sent me on my way. Driving along after that diagnoses I felt the clouds part for the first time in months. Even though I’d always sneered at the idea of depression being a ‘thing’, now a professional doctor had told me I had it, I felt relief. Relief because I didn’t have to try and figure it out anymore. My mind felt quiet for the first time in ages. That night I sat at my computer and read everything I could about depression and joined an online group chat to talk to other people in the same boat. I can’t describe how much better I felt knowing that this was a ‘thing’, and not just me being a terrible person.

I felt fragile, but compassionate towards myself. After months of feeling angry at myself for not functioning properly I finally could just breathe and let myself be. That’s one of the hardest things with depression, realising that your thoughts aren’t telling you the truth anymore. They are warped as they are coming from a fearful and negative place. I took advice to get out with friends, and I started taking long walks. I avoided drinking. With this new perspective: “I have depression”, I was able to treat myself as an injured person. That is, I took better care of myself, I paid attention to my needs. Life got better. Until I moved to Dublin with my boyfriend. In my mind I was living the dream – new country, a city of culture, loads of money, new job, I’d made it in life.

Then one lunch time I was sitting in the cafeteria with my new workmates and suddenly everyone seemed very far away but their voices got louder. I could hear my heart slamming in my chest and I got tunnel vision. I couldn’t catch my breath. I thought I was having a heart attack. The doctor checked me over and couldn’t find anything wrong, but over the next few weeks these symptoms returned along with the feeling that I was being strangled. Turns out they were anxiety attacks. All of this stopped when I left my unhealthy relationship and started to pay attention to my own needs again. Maybe depression and anxiety are our soul’s way of getting our attention when we’re on the wrong path, or maybe it really is a chemical problem. I’m still searching for the answers to this.

It scares me to think how things might have gone if I hadn’t been told it was depression and anxiety. I don’t know what gave me the idea that depression was such a dirty word, something to be ashamed of. As a young woman who had a good social life and everything going for her, I suppose I didn’t want anybody to see me as a victim to be pitied. We all want to be cool don’t we? Now I am 33 and still have bouts of depression and anxiety, but I’m better equipped to deal with it now and I wouldn’t change the journey I’ve been on because it’s made me a more open and caring person.

Looking back at where my depression stemmed from now, I see it as a result of post-traumatic stress, which is rife in our society. Post-traumatic stress isn’t just what soldiers at war suffer. Anyone who goes through a traumatic experience in life and doesn’t talk through it, work through it with somebody else – but just keeps it to themselves and tries to forget about it, bury it – is at risk of suffering with depression and anxiety. One thing I have learned is to acknowledge the hurt you have felt in life, even if it’s just in writing to yourself. Get it out, acknowledge it, let yourself feel whatever you want to feel, be kind and patient with yourself and ask for help if you need it.

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