Opera Holland Park General Director, Michael Volpe, introduces our newly released film, Into The Light.
There is a peculiar trait that you notice when you first engage with someone suffering from PTSD, which is particularly evident when that trauma has emerged from the threat to life that military experience presents. That trait is mistrust. Not outward hostility or truculence, but a distance; a barrier exemplified by doubtful eyes, as though you are being scanned for bullshit . It is inescapable and it puts you on your guard. These were my first thoughts when I met the participants in Opera Holland Park’s Into The Light, a film that follows three UK forces veterans on a journey into opera.
Our two previous films, From Footy to Verdi and Hip Hop to Opera also dealt with novice operagoers – football fans and inner city teenagers respectively. While both films were startling and heart-warming, they were primarily concerned with challenging the participants to expand their cultural horizons. Into the Light was different from the beginning.
My interest in mental health issues goes back a long way, and the benefits of music therapy are a well-established concept. I had some trepidation when stepping into the specific arena of PTSD and veterans, yet it seemed the perfect topic with which to test our belief that music – and opera, in particular – has the power to elevate mood and to engender self-reflection. As with the other films, however, opera soon took a secondary role.
Our starting thesis was that engaging with live opera and its storytelling can help all of us to find parallels with our own lives that enable us to see ourselves differently: to ‘look back on ourselves’ and to admit our failings; to express our own pain; to acknowledge the damage of the past. It also exposes us to experiences that simply fill us with joy, which can never be a bad thing. For veterans suffering with PTSD, stepping outside of themselves mentally can be liberating, and the potency of creativity – as an observer and as a participant – is unbridled.
Our first day was spent interviewing each of the participants at Stoll, in Fulham, a charity that provides long-term housing for service personnel leaving the forces. Mac, Tina and Ian didn’t present as timid or over-sensitive. I was soon reassured that there was little risk of ‘saying the wrong thing’ and I could confidently ask them questions that might prompt frank and revealing answers. Mac confessed to having had suicidal ideation during his dark times. Ian spoke openly about his confidence issues and his years of anger and alcohol-abuse. Tina revealed her history of abusive relationships. But the guardedness remained, and the questioning eyes and scrutiny were ever-present.
The opera we chose to focus on was Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, a fairy tale about a young princess, who is blind and kept in ignorance of her condition. Love, as it turned out, would be the cure for her blindness, and her emergence into the colour and luminosity of sight is the climax of the opera. The parallels were not lost on our participants. As filming progressed and Mac, Ian and Tina began to experience the opera in rehearsal rooms and at the theatre, there was a gradual softening of attitudes. Some trust was built but I found myself increasingly aware of practiced answers – perhaps born of therapy – that sometimes locked me out.
Tina was always keen to say how she wanted to do something that entertained or helped others – running away, perhaps, from the thought that she had a right to think firstly of herself. Her abusive relationships had given her that habit. Mac’s attachment to his Parasport and heavy metal music revealed a passionate soul, but one not given too readily to introspection or softness. He was still a tough soldier at his core, but a glimpse of his softer side emerged when he spoke about photography. Ian was almost embarrassed to say he enjoyed painting, and that what he liked to paint most was nature and colour. The shackles of macho soldiering, the principle that prevented all three of them seeking help for years, were not fully ruptured.
As the time for their visit to the full performance of Iolanta approached, I had doubts as to whether we would break through the self-protecting wall they had all built. Tina was the most eager to experience the performance, although she seemed simultaneously terrified of what it might unlock. She wanted to ‘find the woman I used to be before all this happened’.
During our visit to the rehearsal room, Ian had taken courage in his hands and moved between the singers during a rehearsal of the final chorus. It was a magical moment, and a clip of it has had tens of thousands of views on social media, but arriving at the theatre he pulled me aside to express his fear that he thought he might have looked foolish. I worried that my promise to remove from the film anything they were unhappy with would leave me with too little footage to work with. I needn’t have been concerned, because in the end they embraced their journey.
Into the Light does little more than demonstrate what we already believed to be true; that music and drama have a unique power to affect our sense of self. Trauma and depression are never washed away easily, if at all, but sharing the fictional tales of opera, along with their monumentally affecting music, can help us set our histories and our anxieties into context. Beautiful things are never wasted. And to my great surprise, when Ian visited the theatre a second time, the film required an epilogue which is so remarkable that cynics might think it was staged. It wasn’t.