On a recent spring afternoon, members of Lyric Opera Stage Artists got a first hand lesson in the capacity of music to heal. On Friday, June 1, six members of the chorus performed arias, songs and ensembles for residents of Hartwell Place, a memory care facility on Chicago’s North Side. For baritone Jeffrey Taylor, one of the performers and the organizer of the event, it was personal. His mother is a resident at Hartwell and was among the guests at the performance.
“Though we are not music therapists”, said Jeffrey, “I feel we performed a therapeutic service to the Hartwell residents. Hartwell Place is a specialized senior assisted living facility for memory care. Most of its residents have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in many different stages.” He added, “Music and singing reach different parts of the brain than spoken language. Often people will respond to music when other responses are being lost.” This is confirmed by renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, “Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory…it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.”[ Quote from the documentary film, Alive Inside.]
Finding an accompanist for the afternoon proved tricky so the group improvised. Each of the afternoon’s selections was accompanied by orchestral tracks found on the internet, which added a level of excitement for the performers and the guests in attendance. Soprano Rachael Holzhausen, mezzo sopranos Pam Williams and Colleen Lovinello, tenors Ken Donovan and John Concepcion, and baritone Jeffrey Taylor, sang selections from La Traviata, Gianni Schicchi, Cavalleria Rusticana, Tosca, Pearl Fishers, Lakmé, Tales of Hoffmann, Carousel and South Pacific.
Sally Myers of Hartwell Place was moved by the performances and remarked “Music has a special meaning for people struggling with dementia, and you warmed the hearts of many.” Her sentiments were shared by all residents and staff in attendance that afternoon. As the singers chatted with residents following the performance, it was not hard to see the gratitude and joy they all shared.
More performances are planned at Hartwell Place and their sister community at Covenant Home in Andersonville, also on Chicago’s North Side.