If you want to sing out, sing out
It’s a profoundly simple idea: honor the elderly. Lifesongs, a community-outreach program created by the Santa Fe Opera and Littleglobe, a local collaborative artists’ ensemble, is in its third year. The program involves seniors from the historic Barelas neighborhood of Albuquerque, Santa Fe patients in hospice care, and a group of residents from Santa Fe Care Center, a nursing home. The results of this collaboration are performed at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Sunday, May 2. The program is also performed at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque on Saturday, May 1.
After a van from Santa Fe Care Center pulled up in front of the Santa Fe Complex, where a rehearsal was being held, participants were wheeled into a semicircle amid hugs and greetings from facilitators, including Molly Sturges, founder of the program and a collaborating composer; Acushla Bastible, curator and stage director; and Zevin Polzin, the computer whiz, who was busy setting up equipment. Francisco Romero, 92, who called last year’s performance “the best night of my life,” was given a special welcome. He had been in poor health just a few weeks before. “I thought I’d see if I can help out,” he said. All of the elders on hand had written songs with the help of the
Lifesongs collaborators. While music is part of the mix, most of the songs take nontraditional forms, with storytelling an important component. “We try and find the music that exists between us,” said Sturges, who has a reputation as a master at drawing ideas out of people. “We start where somebody is. It’s their life.”
“They say everybody has a novel in them, but we say everybody has a song,” said Andrea Fellows Walters, director of education and outreach at Santa Fe Opera. She is also a facilitator with Lifesongs. “People feel put aside at a nursing home. I’ve been told that at Santa Fe Care Center, 85 percent have no one who comes to visit them. We are about re-engaging them. Attention must be paid! These people are in transitional states; they’re in life-review mode. It may be representational or abstract, but what comes out is narrative. That’s also the heart of opera.”
Jennie Garcia, who is 89 and in hospice care in Albuquerque, wrote a song 50 years ago: “This Is Goodbye.” Working with composer Frederick Frahm and mezzo-soprano opera singer Kathleen Clawson, the song has been revised for Lifesongs as a waltz. Dancers, a chorus, and instrumentalists accompany Garcia’s song in the program. For something that starts, as Walters put it, “as a quiet, intimate partnership between the artist and the facilitator,” the final product tends to become something much larger. Sturges estimated that there would be 70 musicians appearing onstage at one point or another during the concert.
Your Song, a women’s chorus made up of hospice workers and nurses, participates in the performance, and for the second year, the University of New Mexico chorus Dolce Suono also plays a role in bringing the stories to life. Sturges reported that the chorus doubled in size after word got out from members that the experience making music with elders in Lifesongs was life-changing. “The kids, many of whom were complaining up to the very end last year about having to work with ‘old people,’ ended up crying during the performance,” she said.
Another piece, “Light and Shadow,” was developed with Thomas Vorce, a hospice patient who worked as a professional photographer. His blackand-white photographs will be included in a video that accompanies his piece, which was developed in collaboration with poet and novelist Henry Shukman and photographer Jason Jaacks. A choir offers “improvisational cells,” and the score includes marimba and South Indian percussion. “I suggested the rhythmic music to go along with his photographs, and he loved it,” Sturges said. “These are vibrant exchanges. It’s hard to get your head around it; you just have to experience it.”
One rehearsal featured “adaptive instrumentation.” Each elder sat at a special table. The movement of their hands along the tabletop created music, thanks to a video feed and reactive computer programming (the work of Polzin). “Didn’t you go dancing every night?” Sturges asked Romero, the first to sit at the table. “Every week,” he corrected her. “What were the instruments?” she asked. “Violins, guitar.” “We’re going to make your left hand the violin and the right hand the guitar,” she said. “Remember, we’re looking for beginnings and endings.”
Musical memoirs: stage director Acushla Bastible, performer Virginia Gomez, and computer whiz Zevin Polzin; top, Bastible and performer Paul Seifried