How Aria?: The opera challenging stigma around mental health

Performance combining opera, poetry and mental health launches with First Fortnight

We may talk about having the blues, or the black dog, or the mean reds, but we don't talk about them enough. Look around next time you're out and about, or even at home – chances are, someone could do with a bit of help. It might be you. And you or they might need it right now. It's no coincidence that the First Fortnight Mental Health Art and Culture Festival takes place during January. JP Swaine, who co-founded the festival with Dave Keegan, had been working in the mental health services. He noticed how case files would surge in the early part of the year.

"That's the time when it's so important to have the conversation," says Edel Doran, who is programme co-ordinator with the festival, the aim of which is to make spaces for people to talk about the things that may be troubling them, or someone close to them. It does this through an eclectic and vibrant programme of arts events and exhibitions. From small beginnings, First Fortnight has grown: "It all kicked off in a kitchen in Tallaght," says Doran. Last year, it hosted the European Mental Health Art and Culture Festival, which featured almost 200 events from 24 countries.

This year, the nationwide programme includes a first: How Aria? is an operatic composition in partnership with the Irish National Opera and St Patrick's Mental Health Services. Poet Stephen James Smith, who has been working with the festival for the past nine years, including performing and programming, took on the challenge of finding the text, which he did by working with service users at the St Patrick's Mental Health site in Dublin.

"I was a bit daunted by the ask," he says. "I can't pretend to be au fait with opera."


He has been to six: “Some I’ve liked, some I don’t, but that’s art.”

He also found going to St Patrick’s Hospital a challenge in itself. “I have my own connections,” he says, recalling a former partner’s time there. “I was hesitant, I had good and bad memories. The first time I went back it was to see a Beckett play, and I sat in my car and cried after.”

Mental health conversations

Everyone involved in the project has a matter-of-fact way of talking about emotion and mental health, which at first may seem almost uncomfortably honest, until I realise how hugely preferable it is to our default of “How are you?”, “I’m fine” – a call and response that may mask so much. If mental health conversations are challenging on one level, Smith is also alert, in a tongue-in-cheek way, to the further twin challenges of getting people interested in opera and poetry.

"I want to give people the same sort of catharsis that I've found through poetry," he says. He recommends YouTube to hear poems performed in a way that will grab you by the scruff of the neck and shake you to the core (try Maya Angelou with her And Still I Rise for a flavour). At the St Patrick's workshops, he used the Haiku form. "It's a way of distilling an emotion into 17 syllables," he says. "Which was more democratic than me editing something that someone else had written."

The process was "very real. Amazingly joyful, but also quite pressurised. There were times when people cried. But they were brilliant. Very creative." Composer Amanda Feery joined in towards the end of the six-week series. "She can take the words to a different realm," says Smith.

And, lest you think that opera is old stories about dead people, Feery’s work opens up a whole new world. The Offaly-born composer has recently returned from completing a PhD at Princeton University in the US. During that time, she created The Very Air Tastes Different, composed from tweets she read after the Marriage Equality referendum. Find it on Soundcloud, and hope that her plan to have it performed in Ireland later in 2020 will come to fruition.

“It was quite a challenge to assemble the text,” she says. “There wasn’t a clear narrative, but a series of topics, covering stigma, alienation. There were also a lot of really beautiful texts about how things feel. And it wasn’t as if everything was very negative,” she continues. People wrote about the sun, and strength and resilience.”

She shares some lines: “Luscious, luminous fuelled sun /To see beyond this solstice...”

Talk therapy

Feery also talked to the participants about folklore and myth. “The Greeks had gods and goddesses related to mental health,” she says. “Oizys is the goddess of anxiety, grief and depression. She’s the daughter of Nyx, the goddess of the night. That means they were discussing mental health back then.”

She also describes her own experiences of anxiety, in her mid-20s in Dublin. “It was bubbling and bubbling, and it was new to me. I didn’t know what to do. I thought there was something wrong with me. I was getting really panicky about things, and that leads to feeling down because there’s an anxiety around everything.” Talk therapy helps, she says.

She directs me to a quote by the late K-Punk writer Mark Fisher, describing how "the 21st century is perhaps best captured in the 'bad' infinity of the animated gif, with its stuttering, frustrated temporality, its eerie sense of being caught in a time-trap." He's right, and so is she. But art and music can be a release, an opening of a door away from the frenetic feeling of trapped gif-ness. Music takes you into feeling, beyond the realm of words, but it can also lead to a space in which talking becomes a possibility.

How Aria? will feature mezzo-sopranos Bríd Ní Ghruagáin and Dominica Williams, accompanied by the Bangers and Crash Percussion Group. It will take place at St Patrick’s University Hospital, the place where the words began. It’s a clear decision by the programmers to step over the separation society has tried to create between those of us who are “well” and the “others”.

“When you go, you don’t know if you’re sitting beside a patient, or a member of the public,” says Smith. “But let’s face it, those two roles are interchangeable.”

The poet describes the experience of standing beside an opera singer, “the power they can conduct through their body is mesmeric. So, the power of poetry, channelled through that can take us into another realm.” How Aria? itself will be about 20 minutes long. “Just come along,” Smith recommends. “Twenty minutes, you can take that on the chin. Be curious. Challenge the notions… Hopefully you’ll leave with a new perspective. That’s what First Fortnight is about, that’s what poetry is about.”

How Aria? is at St Patrick's Mental Health Services, Dublin 8, in a double bill with Christopher Cerrone's Goldbeater's Skin on January 12th. Presented in collaboration with the Irish National Opera. €10.00,