About Creative Aging
According to the Administration on Aging, by 2030 there will be approximately 72.1 million older adults, more than double the 2000 population. Shifting demographics are accompanied by a shift in arts education philosophy as the need and benefit of arts programming for older adults becomes evident. The National Center for Creative Aging noted, “Studies have shown that challenging, participatory programs [for older adults] promote better health and disease prevention, resulting in higher levels of independence and less need for long-term care.” In response to creative aging research, arts educators are providing creative aging programs focusing on the potential of older adults to live productive, healthy lives and contribute to their communities.

Grantmakers in Aging reports the following benefits of arts participation for older adults:
  • Decreased anxiety, depression and perception of loneliness
  • Increased levels of hGH (low hGH is implicated in osteoporosis, energy levels, etc.)
  • Decreased harmful behaviors and reduced agitation
  • Greater sense of communal identity and social bonding
  • Increased quality-of-life for up to six weeks after seeing a live performance

Susan Perlstein, founder emeritus of the National Center for Creative Aging, also cites learning new skills, meeting new people and having a new life experience as key reasons older adults join a creative aging program.

The benefits of creative aging programs also extend to opera companies and the community at large. Grantmakers in Aging identified the following benefits of arts participation to the community:
  • Enables communication across generations, income, abilities and cultures
  • Contributes to preserving or restoring social capital
  • Encourages civic engagement
  • Lowers risk of the need for long-term care

Betsy and Herbert Thorne sing during a Stories and Song rehearsal.
Photo Credit: Jackie Schiffer
Why Opera?
Opera is the ideal art form for creative aging programs because it matches the needs of older adults:
  • Participant engagement through multiple artistic disciplines, including vocal music, instrumental music, theater, dance and visual art/design
  • Cognitive challenges and intellectual stimulation to create a rich experience for older adults
  • Exposure to diverse and complicated subject matters, including various time periods or historical eras and settings that frequently involve different cultures

Based on outside research and the Stories and Song program experience, OPERA America makes the following recommendations to opera organizations:
  • Take time to gain a deep knowledge of the population your program serves
  • Plan events for morning or afternoon as these times tend to draw the most participants due to convenience and availability of public transportation
  • Make accommodations for limited mobility or cognitive capacity
  • Keep prices low or free as many older adults are on fixed budgets
  • Teaching artists and program administrators should have a high level of positive energy and flexibility
  • Facilitate activities that focus on building authentic relationships among the community of older adults
  • Be prepared to build ongoing relationships with that community

For further information regarding the field of creative aging, OPERA America recommends:
Arts for the Aging
Arts for the Aging engages older adults in health improvement and life enhancement through the arts. Based in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, the organization provides 500 programs annually to give hundreds of older adults bi-weekly access to arts programing.
Elders Share the Arts
Elders Share the Arts
This Brooklyn, NY-based organization has been recognized by the NEA for outstanding practices in creative aging. Over the last 30 years, Elders Share the Arts has served over 30,000 youth, adults and elders through its Living History Arts, Intergenerational Arts and Arts in Dementia Care programs.
Grantmakers in the Arts
Grantmakers in the Arts
Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) seeks to provide leadership and service to advance the use of philanthropic resources on behalf of arts and culture and recently identified arts and aging as a crucial arts funding topic.
The National Center for Creative Aging
The National Center for Creative Aging
Founded in 2001, The National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA) is dedicated to fostering an understanding of the vital relationship between creative expression and healthy aging. The organization strives to identify and promote best practices in creative aging.
National Guild for Community Arts Education
National Guild for Community Arts Education
The National Guild for Community Arts Education supports and advances access to lifelong learning opportunities in the arts. Extensive resources on creative aging including archived webinars are available online.
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Opera Program Planning
Program Location and Population
Opera learning programs can be designed to partner with organizations (such as senior centers or residences) that serve older adults. In order to find a suitable partner, set up an informational interview with the programs and activities coordinator or site director. The partner site’s requirements will vary but may include a background check or an on-site training session. Alternately, opera companies may wish to offer their own independent programs. Once the location of the creative aging program has been determined, gaining a thorough understanding of its community and how your organization’s goals can serve this population is essential.

OPERA America recommends speaking directly with potential participants to gauge their skill levels and interest in opera. By asking participants what they hope to gain from participation and tailoring the program to meet these goals, the participants’ dedication will increase.

OPERA America staff, teaching artist Mary Feinsinger and Stories and Song participants at the spring 2013 concert.
Photo Credit: Audrey Saccone
Working with Older Adults
While gathering information about the population, bear in mind the special needs of older adults. Challenges for creative aging projects are especially prevalent in the following areas:
  • Health/physical well-being: Disabilities may range from memory loss and dementia to physical limitations, including trouble with movement and loss of vision or hearing.
  • Participation: Barriers to attending creative aging programs include time of day, transportation and cost. During program sessions, participant interruptions in the classroom and irregular attendance may occur.
  • Learning opera-based content: Some older adults may have negative impressions of opera or a resistance to learning operatic repertoire in a foreign language.

In anticipation of these challenges, OPERA America recommends program organizers:
  • Plan activities directly before or after lunchtime. Generally, events on weekends and evenings are not as well attended because transportation and safety are concerns.
  • Opera companies may wish to provide transportation for participants depending on their needs and accessibility of transportation. If transportation is not provided for participants, eliminate confusion by providing clear directions to the program site and helping secure travel arrangements (calling a taxi, walking with an older adult to the subway, etc.).
  • Note the proximity of program activities to participants’ homes to allow for appropriate travel time.
  • Offer free or low-cost programs and events.
  • Instill the attitude that opera can be fun and accessible by accommodating the special needs of older adult populations and creating a strong sense of community.

Session Management
During program sessions, flexibility is essential to accommodate the special needs of older adults. OPERA America recommends the following practices for effective session management:
  • Speak slowly, loudly and clearly.
  • Be prepared to repeat exercises or offer extra assistance as needed.
  • Adjust to physical limitations by using large print scores and offering alternatives to physical exercises to accommodate mobility limitations.
  • Review the material regularly in the event members are absent or forgetful.
  • Keep rehearsals open to anyone who wishes to observe or listen. Individuals will often join a program after watching for a few sessions. Be sure to gauge the participant to teacher ratio and adjust appropriately according to the specific needs of your program’s population.

For special events (both on and off-site concerts, performances, lectures, etc.), creative aging professionals in opera may wish to:
  • Provide handouts listing the time and date of the event to help prevent confusion.
  • Call participants to remind them a few days prior to and the day before an event.
  • Ensure that the volume is loud enough to project throughout the space if the event uses multimedia equipment.
  • Utilize supertitles for translations of foreign-language material and to assist the hearing impaired.
  • Provide a short summary or introduction to enhance participants’ comprehension of the activity.

Experience-Based Learning
Regardless of programmatic emphasis, experience-based learning resonates with older adults as it taps into a key reason that they join creative aging programs: to have a new life experience. Creative aging programs in opera usually focus on creating and performing opera, learning about opera or engaging with the opera industry. Examples of experience-based learning activities one may wish to include:
  • Involving older adults in an opera performance
  • Composing an opera with older adults
  • Inviting guests from different facets of the opera industry
  • Participating in a pre-performance or community lecture about opera
  • Taking a backstage tour at an opera company
  • Attending an HD broadcast, dress rehearsal or live performance of an opera
  • Offering a list of activities outside of program hours for participants to learn more about opera on their own time

Selecting Repertoire
If you are designing a vocal program, you may wish to increase the understanding and accessibility of the operatic repertoire by:
  • Utilizing crossover repertoire, works written in the participants’ native language or translated text. Note: OPERA America found that participants were eager to perform the selections in the original languages and that foreign language repertoire should not be considered a barrier.
  • Writing the pronunciations phonetically on lyric sheets for foreign language repertoire
  • Selecting abridged or arranged operatic repertoire

Suggested Repertoire
When selecting repertoire for an opera-based learning program, you may wish to consider arrangements of the following as they are familiar and widely available for use:
  • Habañera or Toréador Song (Carmen)
  • Humming Chorus (Madama Butterfly)
  • Libiamo ne' lieti calici (La traviata)
  • Una furtiva lagrima (L'elisir d'amore)
  • Va, pensiero (Nabucco)

Copyright Law
If a program involves the study of operatic repertoire, pay particular attention to copyright law. It is imperative to understand copyright when photocopying music. Bear in mind that new arrangements and contemporary works usually do not fall under public domain. See copyright.gov for more information.

OPERA America has engaged consultants Michael Bronson and Joseph Kluger to assist its Professional Company Members (PCMs) on rights issues and electronic media. Their services are available at no charge to PCMs and they may be reached at ElectronicMedia@operaamerica.org.

Staffing Creative Aging Programs
In planning program activities, opera companies should also consider the following:
  • Programming may take substantial work off-site or outside of traditional work hours
  • Staff at the partner site may work at multiple sites or on a non-standard schedule (weekend, evenings, etc.) so plan to be flexible and realistic about the staffing needs for adequate implementation of a creative aging program
  • Volunteers may be helpful in offering additional programming and support

Teaching artists are an excellent resource because they typically come from a diverse arts background and may have special skills that can be highlighted to match the program’s focus. Depending on the type of program, key qualities of a successful teaching artist in creative aging include:
  • Previous experience or strong desire to work with older adults
  • Attention to special needs and ability to improvise to best match those needs
  • Knowledge of and experience with opera repertoire and the opera industry
  • Strong listening skills
  • Patience, humor and flexibility
  • Energy to engage participants
  • Familiarity with the aging voice
  • Performance experience: singing, acting, accompanying, conducting

Marketing and Recruitment
When marketing the program to potential participants, it is essential to emphasize the benefits of participation in these programs and bear in mind how older adults receive information. Additionally, an effective marketing and recruitment effort should address the concerns of older adults regarding potential challenges, limitations or special needs.

Recommended recruitment and marketing activities include:
  • Visiting the program site or locations potential participants may frequent prior to the program’s start to generate ideas and recruit participants (visit during lunch hour or another communal gathering)
  • Hosting a separate introductory session allowing participants to share the topics and repertoire that they are most interested in exploring
  • Calling potential participants to personally invite them (based on a list from the partner site or community organizations that work with older adult populations)
  • Publicizing all sessions and events with posters and in your partner site’s calendar (if applicable)
  • Creating a calendar for the creative aging program
  • E-mailing participants with updates and reminders
  • Posting on social media platforms that have event calendars specifically targeted to older adults
  • Placing posters at other community locations frequented by older adults

Documentation and Learning Strategy
It is important to design a documentation strategy in order to learn about the ongoing development and progress of the program. Documentation addresses key questions your organization and funders may have regarding the extent of participant learning and whether or not program and organizational goals were met through a creative aging project Through this process, you can adjust program activities to better match the needs of the group and gain greater insight into the group’s learning. Additionally, documentation benefits participants by serving as a self-assessment of skill level and progress, as well as a reinforcement and review of topics studied.

Your documentation and learning strategy may include:
  • Audio recording, videotaping and photographing program sessions
  • Tracking attendance
  • Gathering teachers' reflections (oral or written)
  • Collecting and archiving all written classroom activities
  • Interviewing partner site staff members, participants and teaching artists
  • Vocal or other related form of participant evaluation at the beginning, middle and end of the program
  • Surveying participants about opera learning and community building

OPERA America offers the following guidelines in developing a successful documentation and learning strategy:
  • Develop program goals and indicators of success before the beginning of a program
  • Be prepared to assess participants to accommodate different learning styles and possible barriers
  • Incorporate both self and external assessments
  • Explain the purpose and usage to participants when gathering data or recordings
  • Obtain consent forms from all participants via a signed media release for full access to use the videos, pictures and recordings

Partnerships and Community Building
In order to greatly enhance the scope, visibility and impact of your program, partnerships and community building are vital in serving older adults. By involving participants that are already invested in another activity (ex. poetry class, sing-a-long) at a partner organization, one can build upon their loyalty to participate in future opera programming.

Typically, a partner site that serves older adults will offer other community programs (poetry, visual art, gardening, theater, etc.) that are potential partners for collaboration. In pursuing partnerships:
  • Review programming at the partner site and identify potential collaborators
  • Ask staff at the partner site for recommendations on who might be interested in collaborating
  • Use clear and reciprocal terms as you define the parameters of a partnership
  • Remember that it is best to get commitments to fund portions of a project and more substantial agreements in writing (contracts for space, financial agreements, etc.).

Drawings by Hamilton Senior Center’s Life Maps program, a partner of OPERA America’s Stories and Song, displayed at the spring 2013 concert.
Photo Credit: Audrey Saccone
Community Building
Building authentic relationships with the community is essential as it will increase the level of investment of older adults, funders and staff at the partner site have in a creative aging and opera program. In order to create a positive learning environment for participants:
  • Emphasize the importance of experience over perfection
  • Instill a sense of ownership and membership by providing participants with a choice in programming
  • Remind participants of their personal goals for the program
  • Minimize deadlines and requirements
  • Learn the names of participants as soon as possible
  • Take personal interest in conversations and events at the partner site (if applicable) outside of the opera-learning program

Additionally, opera company staff should consider how they will continue a relationship with participants and the partner organization after the program has concluded.

Continuing the Relationship
Whether or not the program is ongoing, older adults will have an increased interest in your organization upon program completion. OPERA America recommends the following practices in continuing a relationship with creative aging program participants:
  • Gather participant contact information and survey how participants might wish to be involved with your organization in the future.
  • Invite participants to engage with your organization at upcoming performances or events.
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OPERA America’s Stories and Song | Spring 2013

Stories and Song participants rehearsing with teaching artist Mary Feinsinger.
Photo Credit: Audrey Saccone
OPERA America’s Stories and Song program offered a comprehensive opera learning and performance experience for older adults. This program was generously supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and Councilmember Gale Brewer, and was produced in partnership with Hamilton Senior Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The participants met weekly with a teaching artist and OPERA America staff for 90 minutes to study opera through vocal instruction, opera repertoire, creative projects and discussion. Throughout the 10-week program, Stories and Song welcomed visits from guest artists, including a librettist, costume designer, artistic director and singers. Additionally, Stories and Song collaborated with the Life Maps program at Hamilton Senior Center, where participants created drawings of Giuseppe Verdi. The program also included optional activities such as a screening of an opera film at Hamilton Senior Center and a field trip to a live performance. The program culminated in a performance of opera choruses and abridged opera arias with an art exhibit by Hamilton Senior Center’s Life Maps class on display during the reception.

Participants now have an increased interest in other OPERA America programs. They have requested subscriptions to Opera America Magazine, are interested in performing at future OPERA America creative aging and other community events, and are eager to attend or volunteer at OPERA America events at the National Opera Center.

For a complete program profile, download the full report here.

Vocal Warm-Ups 0:54 (View video)
Libiamo Ne Lieti Calici Diction Rehearsal 0:11 (View video)
Toréador Song Diction Instruction 02:20 (View video)
Una Furtiva Lagrima Diction Instruction 0:25 (View video)
Una Furtiva Lagrima Sing-Through 01:43 (View video)
Va Pensiero Harmony Instruction 0:11 (View video)
Va Pensiero Sing-Through 0:19 (View video)

Program and Documentation Tools
The following documents are examples from OPERA America’s Stories and Song program. Please note that these are not intended for reproduction. OPERA America assumes no liability for unauthorized use or reproduction of these forms:
  • Vocal Evaluation (PDF)
  • Participant Survey (PDF)
  • Teaching Artist Job Description (PDF)
  • Teaching Artist Contract (PDF)
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Opera and Creative Aging Webinar

Recorded on Thursday, October 10 at 3:00 p.m. EDT

As demographics shift, older adults make up an increasing segment of the population. Learn how to best engage older adults as an active part of your audience during this new webinar from OPERA America. Jeanne Kelly, executive director at Encore Creativity for Older Adults, will provide an introduction to creative aging. OPERA America’s Jackie Schiffer will discuss why opera is suited for creative aging and how opera companies can create meaningful opportunities with older adults. Andrea Fellows Walters, director of education and community programs at The Santa Fe Opera; Jamie Andrews, community education director at Minnesota Opera; and Sue Elliott, director of education at Seattle Opera, will discuss how opera companies are exploring this important work.

For more information about opera and creative aging programs, please download OPERA America’s resource handbook.

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About Creative Aging
Discover the benefits of creative aging programs and why opera is particularly suited to this work.

Opera Program Planning
Find out more about planning your program and understanding the benefits and challenges in working with older adults. What staffing, marketing and documentation strategies work well with this population? How does one build partnerships and foster a strong community of older adults?

OPERA America’s Stories and Song Program

Opera and Creative Aging Webinar

Opera and Creative Aging Report
Click above to download a PDF of OPERA America’s full report about this program.

For further information, please contact Leah D. Barto, director of learning and engagement, at LBarto@operaamerica.org.

This resource offers information to opera companies developing programs for older adults (60+) and provides a brief overview of what OPERA America learned in implementing its own creative aging program, Stories and Song.

OPERA America's 2013 Stories and Song particpants

Key Recommendations for creative aging programs in opera:
  • Make accommodations for time of day, mobility and special needs
  • Keep prices low or free for those older adults on fixed budgets
  • Utilize experience-based learning
  • Engage teaching artists and/or program administrators with a high level of positive energy, expertise and flexibility
  • Facilitate relationship-building among the older adult community
  • Build an ongoing relationship with the older adult community
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