If you’re in love, it’s the best day of the year. If you’re single, it’s the worst. Red roses, sickly-sweet chocolates in cookie-cutter heart shapes, flower petals strewn on the floor; it’s all a commercial ploy designed to sell things we don’t need, right? It depends who you ask. To the 150 pensioners – rarely the target market for Valentine’s money-making – enjoying heart-shaped fairy cakes and the blaring sound of Bizet’s Carmen, it’s something much more important.
That’s what Opera Holland Park and Age UK Kensington & Chelsea think. An Age UK Kensington & Chelsea Coordinator, Ximena Chiesa is rushing from table to table when I arrive. St Cuthbert’s Church is nestled into a crescent shaped road in Earl’s Court, West London. Its Gothic spire and rusty brickwork sit crammed between the adjacent townhouses. Today it’s decorated with heart-shaped, blush-hued balloons welcoming a hubbub of white-haired pensioners. It’s the Valentine’s lunch in partnership with Opera Holland Park, and there’s an excitable buzz in the air. ‘You know how it is; 60 sign up and then 150 turn up. We’ve done two trips to Tesco,’ Ximena says. The fruits of the trips are quickly being unloaded onto tables by a handful of volunteers on the other side of the church under the arches, flooded in dappled light from the stained glass windows set high in the nave.
‘The only way we can work with isolation and loneliness; it’s about love,’ she says. Lucy Curtis, who runs Opera Holland Park’s outreach programme, Inspire, agrees: ‘It can be hard for people of a certain age to find opportunities to socialise and many end up isolated and alone. On a day like today, events such as these are even more important. Music and love bring us all together.’ Ximena clearly has something else to add, but she’s caught a glimpse of David, the pianist who has just arrived, and scurries off.
‘Thank god he’s here, I couldn’t busk it on a piano,’ says Opera Holland Park singer, Alistair Sutherland to his fellow singer, Sarah Minns, as the last few guests stream in. Most of them don’t know each other, but that doesn’t keep them from nattering. I take a seat on one table near the front of the church, where I meet Eleanor Greenshields, whose Glaswegian accent is laid on thick.
‘I get on the bus and I’ll invariably meet someone I know, I can’t remember the name but I can remember the faces,’ says Eleanor when I explain I know nobody. ‘This is Greta,’ she nods. ‘She’s led a marvellous life!’ Greta was in the Women’s Air Force during the war, but no matter what experiences she’s had, it’s the little things that make her smile.
‘I haven’t had white bread in ages, what a treat,’ she grins cheekily. As she eats, she is distracted by the table decorations. ‘That’s pretty,’ she says, picking up one of the tiny, electric tea lights. ‘How do they do that?’
Meanwhile, Eleanor’s accent hasn’t fooled anyone, and a tiny, Spanish lady sitting at the far corner of my table turns to her and asks her if she’s seen Meghan Markle’s new tartans. Immediately, everyone has an opinion.
‘Did you see how much it cost to get her hair like that?’ asks one lady. Eleanor leans back and waves her hand nonchalantly: “It’s lovely, but equally the other lady, Kate, her hair is fabulous, but what it cost! Have they told you the price of her handbag? It sold out 10 minutes after. Who the flipping hell wants a handbag when every Tom, Dick and Harry’s got one?”
As the singers take to the stage, the gossiping silences. The pleasure the pensioners take in music is written on their faces as Alistair begins to sing Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie en Rose’. When the singers announce something familiar, there’s palpable anticipation. The Beatles’s ‘Love Me Do’ draws veritable cooing. During Sarah’s rendition of ‘Habanera’, one lothario prompts rapturous giggling when he bends down on one knee to the flirtatious performer clutching a bunch of roses. One young woman turns to an elderly lady on her right dressed in a blue, woollen jumper pinned with a brooch, and mouths the words to ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’. The elder lady begins to sing, as if she’d never forgotten the words.
The shared communal spirit is heart-warming and reflects the commitment that both companies have to this group. With regular public concerts featuring professional singers and afternoon tea, Opera Holland Park and AgeUK Kensington & Chelsea aspire to combat social isolation and bring people together in music. Their doors are always open.
Come ‘All You Need is Love’, I’m reminded of all the love there is in the world; between friends, families, and neighbours. Spending Valentine’s Day with lonely pensioners reminded me that maybe the day isn’t so bad after all; even if you are single. That’s all Ximena wants in the end, she says. ‘Love is how we can change things.’
Frankie Crossley is a journalist and Film & TV editor of Miro Magazine. She studied History at the University of Oxford and has worked as a documentary co-producer and freelance journalist before studying for an MA in Investigative Journalism.