Wellness at Welsh National Opera

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Meeting April Heade, the producer of Welsh National Opera’s successful wellness programme, which uses the power of singing to support individuals with chronic health conditions

April Heade (Welsh National Opera)
April Heade (Welsh National Opera)

Can you explain what you do at WNO?

I’m a producer in the programmes and engagement department. My remit is particularly arts and health, and the programme ‘Wellness with WNO’ falls under that. I produce programmes, projects and pilots that engage people with a particular focus around health and well-being with WNO.

What is Wellness with WNO?

The long Covid programme is a national initiative in partnership with the seven NHS Wales health boards, covering different geographical areas. It’s an arts and health programme whereby the NHS refers people from the long Covid rehab service to us at WNO, and we run a six-week programme. It’s online and we have people from all corners of Wales.

We have a professional opera singer, and a host – usually me, on the screen. For an hour per week we share postural techniques, breathing exercises, vocal warm-ups and we sing at the end of every session. For people with long Covid, the main symptoms are breathlessness, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, and joint pain. We piloted it late in 2021, and now it’s available on prescription.

What language are the sessions in?

We have English and Welsh language groups. As they’re signing up, people let us know what their first language is.

How does the process work?

They will attend for six weeks. We meet everybody one-to-one before to take the sense of fear away. They are in a group of up to 12 people, and beyond the six-week course, we offer a drop-in session which runs fortnightly.

Talk me through your hour?

We’ll always start with some postural technique because with breathlessness and dysfunctional breathing it can mean that people are stacking the breath up high, so you can get chest pain and tension up into the neck. We do some gentle releases, a little bit of massage, and then maybe close our eyes for a few minutes. We’ve had people saying they’ve had pain all week but it’s gone in five minutes of doing the exercises. Then we do breathing exercises and games allowing the breath to fill the base of the lungs, and allowing our diaphragm to support us, and subtly increasing core strength in the intercostal muscle.

We always play a beautiful piece of music halfway through to allow people a rest and get a cup of tea. And then we do vocal warm-ups and then we sing. We sing a variety of global folk songs, and songs that are easy to learn. We’ll always put the words on the screen, everyone is muted throughout so they can just hear the WNO vocal specialist.

While we sing, the mechanics are doing their job beneath the surface, but we’re focusing on something joyful – thinking about melodies and words. I can see bodies relaxing and people just enjoying it.

What are the results?

People feel more in control of their breathing and more energised because their circulation has been improved. Also the mental health benefits of feeling listened to. We’ve even had phenomenal reports of people who’ve avoided hospitalisation.

Whose idea was it?

ENO has the ‘Breathe’ programme and in Wales three of our health boards approached us saying they wanted to create similar long Covid services.

Are fewer people affected by Covid now?

We’re still quite consistent with people coming through to us. And the Welsh government has made more investments to continue the programme. They would like the NHS to look at other similar symptom-based conditions, like ME and fibromyalgia, again in collaboration with WNO.

Do you use the same singers in sessions?

There are three singers who work on the sessions, Jenny Pearson, Zoë Milton-Brown, and Kate Woolveridge, MBE.

We approached them when the programme was in its inception because they’re so experienced in community, arts and health facilitation.

What’s your background?

I did English at university, and then worked in publishing, but in my personal life I’d always danced, played instruments, loved the arts through and through, always wanted to work in the arts.

Have you always been interested in health?

My mum worked in the NHS, so I spent lots of time growing up in health-related spaces.

What did you do during Covid?

I was working at WNO and we were just trying to do as much as we could in a hospital in Cardiff. I remember we had one individual who took off their velvet dressing gown tie and draped it over the iPad so it looked like the velvet theatre curtains while they watched the WNO session.

Would you recommend your job to a friend?

Yes, I would, I feel very lucky. It’s the perfect blend of being able to drive new programmes with colleagues, but also get to experience them and meet the individuals who experience them too. We always say at the end of six weeks it’s been a privilege to work with inspiring people. When we sing, it reaches different parts of us, and it brings things to the surface that maybe we didn’t know were there. 

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of Opera Now. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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