Opera Singers Assist Covid-19 Sufferers Study to Breathe Once more

LONDON – One afternoon, vocal coach Suzi Zumpe ran through a warm-up with a student. First she straightened her spine, widened her chest, and began a series of breathing exercises that emitted short, sharp puffs of air. Then she got her voice into action, creating a resonant hum that started almost screeching high before sinking low and rising again. Finally she stuck out her tongue in disgust: a workout for the facial muscles.

Student Wayne Cameron repeated it point by point. “Good Wayne, good,” Zumpe said approvingly. “But I think you can give me some more tongue on this last piece.”

Although lessons were directed through Zoom, they were similar to those that Zumpe normally directs at the Royal Academy of Music or Garsington Opera where she trains young singers.

But Cameron, 56, isn’t a singer; He manages the warehouse logistics for an office supply company. The session was prescribed by doctors as part of his recovery plan after a chubby experience with Covid-19 last March.

The six-week program is called ENO Breathe and was developed by the English National Opera in collaboration with a London hospital. It offers patients tailor-made singing lessons: clinically proven recovery exercises but revised by professional singing teachers and offered online.

While only a few cultural organizations have escaped the consequences of the pandemic, opera companies have been particularly hard hit. In the UK, many have not been able to perform in front of a live audience for almost a year. While some theaters and concert halls reopened for socially distant shows between locks last fall, many opera producers have simply gone dark.

But the English National Opera, one of the UK’s top two companies, has tried to realign its energies. Early on, the education team stepped up its activities, and the cloakroom department manufactured protective equipment for hospitals during an initial national shortage. Last September the company offered a “drive-in opera experience” with an abridged performance of Puccini’s “La Bohème”, which was shown on large screens in a London park. In the same month, it began testing the medical program.

In a video interview, Jenny Mollica, who heads public relations at the English National Opera, explained that the idea came up last summer when “long Covid” cases surfaced: people who have recovered from the acute phase of the disease, but always still suffer effects such as chest pain, fatigue, brain fog and shortness of breath.

“Opera is rooted in the breath,” said Mollica. “That is our expertise. I thought: ‘Maybe ENO has something to offer.’ “

For the time being, she contacted Dr. Sarah Elkin, a respiratory specialist in one of the largest public hospital networks in the country, the Imperial College NHS Trust. It turned out that Elkin and her team had also racked their brains about how to treat these patients over the long term.

“With shortness of breath it can be very difficult,” Elkin explained in an interview and noted how few treatments exist for Covid and how poorly the after-effects of the disease were still understood. “Once you’ve gone through the drug treatment options, you feel like you don’t have much to give to people.”

Elkin used to sing jazz himself; She felt that voice training could help. “Why not?” She said.

Initially, twelve patients were recruited. After a personal consultation with a singing specialist to discuss their experience with Covid-19, they attended weekly group sessions held online. Zumpe started with basics like posture and breath control before walking participants through brief bursts of buzzing and chanting, trying them out in class, and encouraging them to practice at home.


Apr 16, 2021 at 10:43 am ET

The aim was to encourage them to make the most of their lung capacity, which the disease had damaged in some cases, but also to teach them to breathe calmly and deal with anxiety – a problem for many people who have long suffered from Covid.

When asked if he would like to join, Cameron was amused and said, “I thought, will I be the next Pavarotti?”

But Covid-19 had felt defeated, he said; After he was released from the hospital, he had to make several visits to the emergency room and received months of follow-up treatment for blood clots and breathing problems. “Everything I’ve done I’ve fought for air,” he said.

He added that even a few simple breathing exercises could quickly make a world of difference. “The program really helps,” he said. “Physically, mentally, in terms of fear.”

It is almost as important to share a virtual room and exchange stories with other people affected. “I felt connected,” he said.

In addition to the weekly classes, he and the rest of the class were given access to online resources including downloadable sheet music, refresher videos filmed on the main stage of the English National Opera, and soothing Spotify playlists.

For the singing element, the tutors came up with the idea of ​​using lullabies from cultures around the world – partly because they are easy to master, said Ms. Zumpe, partly because they are calming. “We want to build an emotional connection through the music, make it pleasant,” she said. “It’s not just physical.”

And how did Cameron sing now? He laughed. “I’m more in tune,” he said. The program helped him achieve high notes while singing along in the car, he added. “Once you’ve learned the technique, you can use it a lot better,” he said.

Elkin said other participants had also reported positive effects and commissioned a randomized study to deepen clinical understanding – not least because it would help convince colleagues to resolve doubts about complementary therapies and the so-called “social Prescription ”.

“Some people think it’s a bit sensitive,” she said. “You want evidence.”

Even so, the program is expanding to post-Covid clinics in other parts of England that are supported by charitable donations and are free to anyone referred by a doctor. The aim is to take on up to 1,000 people in the next phase, the opera company said in a statement.

It wasn’t just patients and clinicians who had benefited, Mollica said: ENO Breathe had also given musicians and producers in the company something to focus on in a bleak time. “Everyone found it really motivating,” she said. “It’s fantastic to see these skills come in handy.”

Although Cameron was not back to full health, he had recently had a snowball fight with his daughter, an exertion that would have been unthinkable a few months earlier. “I’m a lot more confident than I am,” he said. “That dark feeling is gone.”

He added that the program also did something immensely valuable: taught him to breathe. “I took breathing for granted until Covid,” he said. “So it’s a blessing in a way.”

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