How the Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus Found its Voice

By Eloïse O’Carroll
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018

In 2014, Britain was named “Europe’s capital of loneliness”. Today, over 9 million adults are often or always lonely and, as the late Jo Cox said, “Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate.”

In the light of a loneliness epidemic affecting people of all ages and backgrounds in the United Kingdom, grassroots arts initiatives are designing approaches to prevent and alleviate loneliness. The Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus (ROHTCC) is part of this developing movement, using the arts to connect individuals and foster belonging through community.

Photo by: Eloise O’Carroll, Rehearsal in March 2018

Thurrock is located just half an hour away from the City of London by train, however its economic landscape is quite different to that of its neighbour. On the fringe of London’s financial hub lies an industrial hinterland. Thurrock recorded the lowest levels of life satisfaction in any place in the UK in 2012. The Royal Opera House (ROH) arrived in Thurrock in 2010, as it had to vacate its East London set, costume and wig production premises to make way for the Olympic village. It moved to what is now known as the High House Production Park, a newly established centre of excellence for creative industries in Thurrock, where the ROH built the Bob and Tamar Manoukian Costume Centre and Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop.

Photo by: Eloise O’Carroll, The Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop at the High House Production Park

To inaugurate the site in December 2010, the specially commissioned Purfleet Opera performed Ludd and Isis in the empty Production Workshop. Rich with metaphors, it told the tale of two gods of the Thames; Isis, queen of the upper river who was wooed by the king of the lower river, Ludd. He gained her heart by coupling creativity with industry. The People’s Chorus was the fruit of this marriage, tying in all the elements of the estuary. Performed by 200 Thurrock members of the public and Royal Opera House professionals, the show symbolised the espousal of the ROH’s Central London roots to its expansion in the industrial hinterland.

After Ludd and Isis, members inquired how they could locally pursue their involvement with the Royal Opera House and if they could start a community chorus. Their wish was granted, with the founding of the Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus (ROHTCC) in 2011, and today is comprised of 140 members between the ages of 10 and 80. Anyone living, working, volunteering or studying in Thurrock is welcome to join, regardless of background or ability to sing.

The ROHTCC is not a typical community chorus. The repertoire is mainly opera, which entails  elements of drama, movement, staging and costume that are not always featured in a choir.  Benefitting from a unique relationship with Covent Garden, the Chorus has worked with many leading soloists and theatrical artists from the ROH. They have also performed at the Main Stage at the ROH and at the Barbican, among other venues.

Photo By: ROH/ Brian Slater, Rehearsal Ahead of the FUSED Festival 2013

Most of the Chorus members actually have no musical training or singing experience. In fact, they perform all the pieces they learn from memory and in their original language, whether that be English, French, Italian, Russian or Greek among others!

In March and April, I visited the High House Production Workshop and attended two Chorus rehearsals, where I met numerous Chorus members and interviewed seven of them. Anecdotes from my interviews corroborate evidence that community-led activities improve individuals’ health and wellbeing and enhance their sense of belonging.

One interviewee explained how they found solace in singing. “I suffer from severe anxiety, I constantly have negative thoughts in my mind. Yet, I’m in the zone with music: it gives me peace of mind and clarity. I get lost in the beauty of the music when singing ecstatic pieces.”

Gary, one of the founding Chorus members, told me that “pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is a wonderful experience. Singing can affect your mood and positivity. It helps with wellbeing. Singing and art bring people together. People are healthier and it relieves dementia. Singing is a real plus.”

Photo by: Eloise O’Carroll, Gary

Without naming loneliness or social isolation, many of the Chorus members I spoke with stated they have benefitted from increased wellbeing, social connections and perhaps even happiness, since joining the ROHTCC. The general sentiment is that members value singing and participating in community programmes, highlighting the value these social interactions have in fostering greater social connectedness.

Sarah, an American who moved to Thurrock 10 years ago, is one of the chorus members I spoke to. “I was lost when I moved here”, she said, yet “the Chorus is the one thing that makes my husband and I not want to move out in the countryside.”

Photo by: Eloise O’Carroll, Sarah

As symbolised by the Ludd and Isis metaphor, the ROH brilliantly weaned its way into a mostly working class and industrialised borough. It is on track to achieve its goal of making the arts more accessible. Many members had not heard of the ROH before joining the Chorus and some were weary because they felt that “it was not for them”.

Mike, an 81-year-old Chorus member, shared that, “the ROH and High House Production Park have made Thurrock more culturally aware.”

Photo by: Eloise O’Carroll, Mike

Another member confided that “we really need art in the world, it brings people playfulness. People need that joy and escapism. I knew of the ROH before it came to Thurrock but I never imagined I would ever be involved with it! It’s a wonderful institution. People can flourish in institutions as they offer the structure and support for creative people to really thrive.”

The ROHTCC is a pillar in the Thurrock community and is a place where friendships flourish during exhilarating performances. The singers are well aware of the positive impacts this community program has on them. Madeline, a Chorus member, shared with me that “singing should be prescribed. Any group activity is brilliant as worries fade into the distance. After a rehearsal, I come home beaming!”. Ankie added that “[she] struggles learning music but it’s an anti-Alzheimer’s challenge. You know more than you think you do and you surprise yourself when you don’t have the book!”

Initiatives such as the ROHTCC are important because they help build social connection, protecting participants from the detrimental effects of loneliness.  As we know, loneliness  can increase blood pressure and heart disease, depression and cognitive decline. Furthermore, its health impact is similar to that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  In the UK, most General Practitioners see between one and five patients a day due to loneliness. Preventing and alleviating loneliness is essential for older people to remain as independent as possible. Lonely individuals are more likely to visit their GP, have higher use of medication and increased risk factors for long-term care. They are also more likely to enter residential or nursing care and use accident and emergency services.

Studies note the positive impact of participatory art programmes for older adults on overall health, loneliness, doctor visits, medication use and falls. These studies reflect how important social activities are in reducing risk factors driving the need for long term care. As demonstrated through the ROHTCC, singing in a choir is beneficial for an individual’s psychological wellbeing, more so than singing solo, and helps reduces stress levels. It is not surprising that engagement in creative and cultural activities makes the highest contribution to older people’s wellbeing.

Photo by: ROH/ Brian Slater, Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus 2014

The Purfleet Opera was not meant to live on after Ludd and Isis, yet the Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus shows that resilient communities can find their voices, and be heard.

Over the years, choir members have built social connectedness through singing, protecting them from loneliness and its negative consequences. Through democratizing access to the arts, the intergenerational Chorus is also pivotal in instilling a sense of belonging in a low-income borough nearly void of cultural opportunities. The ROHTCC has not only managed to bring people together and create a unique community, it is also a leading example of how communities can fight back against the effects of loneliness.

Hear the ROHTCC this summer at the Barbican in London for Singing our Lives on 1st July, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Refugee Week!