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Dementia opera so realistic it could be used as teaching aid for medical students

20 May 2010

Throughout the process of creation of The Lion’s Face, The Opera Group has received significant support from The Wellcome Trust, whose Major Arts Award Scheme seeks to promote understanding of biomedical science through imaginative arts projects. The opera is also part of a nine-month UK-wide season of activity about identity initiated by The Wellcome Trust:

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health (BRC-MH) based at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) and the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London (KCL) has joined forces with London’s The Opera Group to develop ‘The Lion’s Face’, a new opera exploring dementia.

Patients, carers, family members, frontline clinical health staff, research scientists and clinician researchers have all been involved in developing the project which receives its world premiere today at the Theatre Royal Brighton, prior to a national tour ending at London’s Royal Opera House on 29 July.

The production explores the emotional and physical impact of Alzheimer’s disease and was developed over two years with The Opera Group working in close collaboration with the researchers in the Dementia and Stakeholder Participation Themes of the BRC-MH. The result is a richly-textured work of music and theatre firmly rooted in scientific research and human reality, which touches the heart and stimulates the mind.

Professor Simon Lovestone, BRC-MH Director and Dementia Theme Lead and Dr Felicity Callard, researcher in the BRC Stakeholder Theme describe the experience in an extract from the Lion’s Face Programme:

'The news-related profile [of Alzheimer’s Disease] is one of fear and of hope...... however….both fail to tell the whole story. Missing are the people touched by the illness. The patients, their families and carers, the diverse professionals are all shadowy figures, if they appear at all. Here in the Lion’s Face, they take centre stage; they are the story. In this work, we see fear and hope but it is the person with Alzheimer’s disease that occupies our attention. The poetry and urgency of his words are as compelling and moving as those of every other character. It was for this reason that we wanted to work with the Opera Group. By spending time with the composer, Elena Langer, the librettist Glynn Maxwell, with the executive producer John Fulljames and others we hoped to show them this story.

The Opera Group team have immersed themselves in our world – have spent time in our laboratories and with our students and scientists, have sat with our multi-disciplinary teams of nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists and others, have talked with people with dementia and their family members. From this has emerged a story that we recognise – it is that of our patients and colleagues. We see some striking representations of dementia, some of which are so true that they might be used as teaching aids.' – reflecting back to us as clinicians and scientists aspects of the disease we might not have thought about otherwise. I think this use of poetry and music will help us to look at Alzheimer’s disease in a different way and will energise me and my colleagues in our battle with this devastating disease.'

The NIHR BRC-MH is dedicated to bringing scientists, clinicians, mental health professionals and service users to work together to take findings from basic science and develop new treatments, better assessments and more personalised mental health care. The Stakeholder Participation theme within the BRC-MH ensures service users and carers are involved at every stage of research.

Dr Felicity Callard, BRC-MH Stakeholder Participation Theme representative said: 'The active involvement of patients, carers, nurses, scientists and doctors in a project like this is a real first. It means the voices of all those with direct experience of this devastating disease can really be heard. It has informed the complexity of each of the characters in the opera rather than offering a one-dimensional portrayal of 'the scientist' or ‘the patient’.'

Irene Brunskill, who has Alzheimer's disease and was involved in the development of the opera, comments:

‘Living with Alzheimer's is at times difficult -- as living with any disease can be. But it's not all doom and gloom: I still enjoy walking and going out with friends. But what is difficult is the huge amount of stigma there is out there -- often people just don't want to know. It is my hope that the opera can help in getting rid of those kinds of attitudes and fears.’

Through theatre, opera and poetry, The Lion’s Face is the story of love, loss and family. Heartfelt, strikingly dramatic and often witty, the production is an original insight into ageing, memory and the incomprehension of getting old in the minds of the young. The project involved an extensive range of public engagement activities including participation by schools.

Dr Callard continued: 'We embraced the opportunity to engage young people in Alzheimer's research through workshops and visits to our research labs. The Lion’s Face project has allowed the important issue of research and participation in research to be raised and discussed.'

John Fulljames, Artistic Director of The Opera Group, said: 'Opera seems to be the ideal art-form in which to explore a retreat into an inner world in which the patient’s ability to communicate diminishes. One of the aims of the project is to find ways of communicating the experience of being touched by Alzheimer’s, either as a patient, carer, clinician or scientist, with a view to increasing public understanding.'

Rebecca Wood, Chief Executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, added: 'The Lion’s Face is incredibly moving and is greatly welcomed, helping people to face and understand the reality of Alzheimer’s and removing the stigma of this disease.'

Professor Simon Lovestone, BRC-MH Director adds: 'I am really excited to have worked with The Opera Group on this project. For us, engaging with the public about dementia is very important and we are always looking for new and interesting ways and partners, to do this with. Working with the arts is a great way to discuss the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease and other illnesses. What really captured my imagination in this case was the opportunity to work with some artists who were interested in a genuine dialogue

The Opera Group is also working with a range of organisations - including the Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer's Research Trust Network - to create a series of talks, workshops and events connected to the performances of the opera around the country. In Newcastle, the performances at Northern Stage (May 25, 26) are part of Newcastle University’s Changing Age Programme, while in Cardiff (July 13) the opera is the keynote event in a one-day Dementia Conference hosted by Gwalia. For further details of The Lion’s Face off-stage events, go to: www.thelionsface.com/offstage and www.theidentityproject.org.uk.

Further generous funding from Arts Council England, the Peter Moores Foundation and The Linbury Trust has enabled The Opera Group to realize the opera. 

For further information about The Lion’s Face see: www.thelionsface.com.

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