Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Joshua Sofaer: Opera Helps Online

By | Published on Friday 28 August 2020

I was immediately intrigued when I heard about Opera Helps Online, which sees opera singers engaging digitally with members of the public to try to help them in dealing with personal problems.

It’s a project that was initially delivered live in people’s homes a number of years ago, but now, in a response to COVID-19, will be reaching people via internet means.

To find out more I spoke to the project’s creator, artist and opera enthusiast Joshua Sofaer.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the history of ‘Opera Helps’? What inspired it and what were its intentions?
JS: It was initially commissioned by Folkoperan in Stockholm in 2012.

Mellika Melouani Melani, the Artistic Director of Folkoperan – which means ‘People’s Opera’ in Swedish – was looking for ways in which opera could reach different audiences and did not rely so heavily on the conventions of traditional staging. She started an experimental festival called Opera Showroom, and she invited me to think of a piece for that festival. That is how ‘Opera Helps’ started.

My own experience of opera has been that sometimes you enter into a sublime cathartic world that leaves you transformed, and at others it’s like cats screeching from the stage. What is that about? It’s not that the quality of the singing is necessarily any better or worse. So, then I thought it must be about you as an audience and auditor.

‘Opera Helps’ forefronts the problem the audience member brings as the reason for meeting. When the problem is in the air, the opera singer selects an aria that they think addresses it in some way and they sing it directly to you. The paradox is that by fore-fronting the problem, people listen to the music more acutely. You feel uniquely addressed. Ultimately ‘Opera Helps’ is about the power of music and of audiences.

CM: Can you explain how the sessions originally operated?
JS: You contacted ‘Opera Helps’ with a problem. We sent a singer to your home. They listened to the problem and then selected an aria from the classical repertoire that they thought addressed the problem some way, and sang it to you with a professionally recorded orchestral backing track.

CM: Obviously COVID restrictions made things difficult so you are now doing it online – how does that work? Is it significantly different to how it worked originally?
JS: The principle is the same. Now sessions are done online. I feared that the intensity would be reduced. It’s true that there are new technicalities that we have to deal with, but at the same time I’m really gratified at how much of the feeling and meaning is still conveyed across digital space.

The force of the sound in your room is not quite the same, but doing it online means we can reach a lot more people, theoretically anywhere in the world where there is a device and a signal.

CM: Can you tell us how the performers involved have been trained / prepared to participate in these sessions?
JS: The singers that we work with are all professional opera singers with concert and theatrical productions at the centre of their careers. They have years of experience, so we didn’t need to do further training in that regard.

For the listening part of their role with ‘Opera Helps’ we trained them in Relational Dynamics. I myself am an accredited Relational Dynamics Coach, a training I took in order to be better equipped to hold the space for participants and colleagues that I work with in professional contexts.

The core skills that they learn are really about how to actively listen, ask open questions and give gentle prompts. There is also a lot about what they should not do, ie give advice or sympathy.

CM: How do you choose the performers you are working with?
JS: For this online version of ‘Opera Helps’ we are working with the same singers we worked with on the 2016 UK Tour. They were selected through audition and interview.

Independent opera singers have been severely affected by COVID-19. The theatres are shut and singing is considered dangerous. Part of the reason for making ‘Opera Helps’ online, now, is to support the livelihood of these singers.

CM: How do you select members of the public to participate? How do they get involved?
JS: Participants are self-selecting, insomuch as we will offer the experience for free to anyone who we think has a problem we can work with, as long as we have slots available. People simply contact us at and tell us their problem.

CM: Can you explain how this process is helpful to people?
JS: Actually, it’s often the case that the harder the problem, the more effective the process can be. If you stub your toe, opera is probably not going to do that much. But if you are bereaved, or feeling isolated and alone, someone listening to you, picking out an aria for you, and singing it to you, can offer a space of reflection and an opportunity for release. We do not guarantee to solve the problem and yet we can bring some solace.

CM: Can we talk a bit about you now, Joshua? Can you tell us a bit about your career, and the kind of work you do?
JS: I work across visual and performing arts, with different media, and in different settings – literally from opera houses to night clubs! I suppose the thing that draws the work together is a concern with how people engage with the work and the possibility of their participation.

Right now, at the same time as working on ‘Opera Helps’, I am completing a large-scale public sculpture for two sides of the Sacramento River in California. It will be a series of light boxes spelling out the names of two women, nominated by their granddaughters, to become the new names of the docks.

CM: How did you come to be pursuing this kind of career? And what hopes and aims do you have for the future?
JS: I studied Drama and English Literature at Bristol University in the 90s but quickly became disillusioned with mainstream theatre. I then went to Central Saint Martins College Of Art And Design and studied Fine Art.

I suppose the work I make is a product of that education, or a reaction to it. I haven’t really planned much.

My hope for the future is just to keep going. It would be nice to get bigger opportunities with larger resources but I’m also happy making small things. I love what I do and feel very privileged. I just want to keep going.

CM: To what extent has your work been affected by the lockdown? Do you think it will have a long-term impact?
JS: Everything was postponed or cancelled. It’s had a massive impact.

Some of the work is on pause. Cap & Dove, a tiny travelling art centre of wheels, that was supposed to tour Greater Manchester this summer, has been delayed a year and will hopefully happen in 2021.

I am concerned that there will be shrinking opportunities for artists in the next few years. I’m just taking each day as it comes at the moment.

CM: What have you done to stay sane over the last few months? What are you looking forward to about ‘normality’, if and when it comes…?
JS: Well, I’ve tried to be conscious of my own well-being and have been taking exercise, listening to music, talking to friends, as many of us have.

If I’m honest, I have felt trapped. A lot of my work has involved international travel. I’ve also been conscious for a while that isn’t sustainable. A lot of us have been thinking about what we can do from our studios or our desks. Lockdown has really pressed the question.

The thing I am most looking forward to is a world without border restrictions… but I don’t think that day will come, regardless of COVID. Border restrictions were already being imposed globally before the pandemic for political reasons.

‘Opera Helps’ Online seeks to harness the redemptive power of opera to help with people’s personal problems. Anyone can apply for an ‘Opera Helps’ slot, which is completely free, via or by calling 07943 939395. Arrangements are then made for a singer to meet you online.

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Photo: Wai Tai Li