Wednesday, August 31, 2022

A PATH TO HEALING

Seattle Opera’s Veterans Choir Keeps Singing

By Glenn Hare

Seattle Opera’s Veteran Choir performed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” and “Hallelujah” at the Northwest Folklife Festival at Seattle Center on Memorial Day, 2022.

Three years ago, Kim Christensen and her small family were living in Foxborough, Mass., in a home surrounded by two acres of land. Financial troubles, the sudden death of her husband from a heart attack, and the pandemic changed her life. The foreclosure and periods of homelessness made caring for her autistic son extremely difficult and each day brought challenges and anxiety. Kim’s life was turned upside-down. “It was exhausting,” she remembers, “both physically and mentally.” 
 
After relocating to Seattle, Kim started taking classes at Path with Art and joined Seattle Opera’s Veteran Choir last spring. The choir is an ongoing partnership between the opera and Path with Art, a Seattle organization that utilizes the arts to bring dignity, awareness, and recovery to its participants. 
 
“It’s nice to be able to talk to people who understand my situation,” says Kim, a former US Army videographer.

Each member of the 13-voice ensemble has military experience—some with long careers, others brief stints. Many of them have endured trauma, be it unemployment, homelessness, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, or domestic violence. Despite these obstacles, they are discovering their voices, gaining back their self-assurance, and finding community through singing. 
 
“When the singers are together, they are like brothers and sisters. The common bond and experience they have as military veterans create an immediate camaraderie in the group,” says Ghaddra Gonz├ílez Castillo, Path with Art’s Community Arts Liaison. “The choir is more than a singing group, it’s a safe space and a community, and that sense of belonging aids in their recovery.” 
 
The ensemble was founded in 2019 specifically to perform in Seattle Opera’s production of The Falling and the Rising, a chamber opera that shines a light on the untold stories of people who have served their country. Since the choir’s debut, the members have continued singing, meeting weekly at the Opera Center to rehearse, learn about opera, and attend Seattle Opera mainstage productions. Unfortunately, like performing arts organizations around the world, the pandemic stopped the choir’s in-person gatherings. And like other performers, the choir pivoted to practicing on Zoom, which was not great for group singing, but it was the only way to remain together. 
 
“Singing on Zoom was hard,” says Joseph Riley. “You couldn’t hear the other singers and it felt like you were singing to yourself.” A veteran of the US Air Force, Joseph has been singing in the choir since it started. “It was a relief to be with people again, together in the same place at the same time,” he says about returning to in-person rehearsals in last winter. 
 
Even with the challenges of Zoom singing, the choir members believe singing helps their recovery. “Eighty-six percent of Path with Art participants indicate that the classes have a positive impact on their mental health,” reports Ghaddra. And research shows that engagement with arts can significantly improve the quality of life of people recovering from trauma. 
 
This year’s Memorial Day holiday marked a significant milestone for the Veterans Choir; the choir gave its first public performance since 2019 at the Northwest Folklife Festival. The singers performed three selections—“The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” and “Hallelujah”—in front of an audience of impressed festivalgoers. 
 
“That was an emotional day for me,” recalls Debbee Lynn, a US Navy veteran, and a recent addition to the group. “At first, I was second guessing even being there. But at the same time, I felt the support of everyone in the choir. I experienced a deep sense of connection and support from them.” 
 
Shanda De Anda was a meteorologist and public affairs officer in the US Air Force for 24 years. “I had a good career,” she says. But her transition to civilian life has been hard. Suffering from depression and isolation, she followed the advice of her therapist and connected with Path with Art. She started singing only a few months ago. “I’m learning ways to express herself again,” Shanda says. “I’m a work in progress, but I’m finding my voice again.” 
 
That is the purpose of the Veterans Choir. The safe, creative environment is where former service members regain their voices. “They’re engaged. They’re active in other classes. And they’re very excited about being with the entire community,” Ghaddra says. “That’s recovery.”

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