This Autumn sees Opera North, one of the UK’s leading arts organisations, holding its first-ever dementia-friendly opera performance.

To prepare for the event, everyone in the company is being offered Dementia Friends training, and Opera North is working closely with Peer Support Service, a Leeds-based dementia charity, to ensure the performance is fully meeting the needs of those living with dementia as well as their families and carers.

We caught up with Alice Gilmour, Opera North’s Community Partnerships & Access Officer, to find out more.

Why do you think it’s important to hold a dementia-friendly performance?

It’s important that we enable people to live well with dementia. A trip to the theatre is part of that for many – and something they might find it difficult to access once they’ve been diagnosed. We wanted to ensure that people living with dementia could continue to attend something they enjoyed.

Why La bohème?

Opera North's 2014

Puccini’s La bohème is probably the most popular opera of all time, so it will hopefully appeal to lots of people. It has a fairly simple story which is easy to follow, and it’s colourful, vibrant and entertaining with, of course, beautiful music. It’s also the shortest opera of the three we’re performing in the autumn season.

How will the show be different from Opera North’s usual performances?

The actual show will remain more-or-less the same – we’ll just reduce any loud noises or bright lights. The main difference will be the experience in the theatre. We’re only selling seats in the dress circle and stalls so there will be fewer people in the auditorium with the option to leave an empty seat next to your party if someone wishes to have a bit more space. We’ll keep the house lights on low throughout the show, there will be a quiet room for people who want to leave the auditorium for a break, and there will be a lot more front of house staff, trained as Dementia Friends, to help create a supportive and relaxed environment.

How will you ensure that people can follow the action on stage?

The opera is being sung in Italian, but the words will be displayed on large screens on either side of the stage. We’ll send out a synopsis with pictures in the pre-show information pack, and we’ll also have a presenter who will welcome people at the start of the performance and do a short recap before the second half.

Can you tell us about the community taster performances you’re doing?

We’ll be touring a short taster performance with a soprano and accordion player to several community settings, including some care-homes, in the weeks leading up to the La bohème performance. This will include a couple of songs from La bohème, and also some French café songs as the opera itself are set in bohemian Paris. We also have another project which will see us hosting three dementia cafés throughout the city over a few weeks in the autumn, creating a Parisian café atmosphere and enabling people living with dementia to learn some of the music from the opera.

Why is engaging with music is so important for people living with dementia?

Being able to enjoy music is one of life’s great pleasures for a lot of people, and it’s well documented that people with dementia can respond well to music even when other forms of communication are reducing. There’s currently a national campaign running, Music for Dementia 2020, which highlights the positive social impact music has for those living with dementia. As it becomes clearer and clearer what an important role music plays, Opera North is perfectly placed to enable people living with dementia and, just as importantly, their carers and loved ones, to enjoy a wonderful experience together.

Any future plans?

We’re planning a more general relaxed performance of an opera next year which would very much welcome people living with dementia, and we hope to set up a regular Dementia Café from our  redeveloped premises on New Briggate, Leeds, We’ll also continue to offer Dementia Friends training within the company to ensure people understand what it’s like to live with dementia and how best they can support those who do.