Opera Review: “Strawberry Fields”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJohn Elder, Kendal at Oberlin resident, shared this review of the opera performance that took place at Kendal on Tuesday, January 27th. “Strawberry Fields” is a one-act opera, written by Michael Torke. The cast of this production, directed by Sally Stunkel, included Oberlin Conservatory students and residents of Kendal at Oberlin. Kendal resident Bob Cothran designed and created the scenery. 

An audience of Kendal at Oberlin residents and staff, along with relatives, friends and neighbors, overflowed the Kendal auditorium and adjoining lounge for an extraordinary experience this week – the performing of Strawberry Fields, a one-act opera by playwright A. R. Gurney and composer Michael Torke, with a cast of Kendal residents and Oberlin Conservatory students. In the opera, an older woman suffering from dementia is joined on a Central Park bench by a Columbia University student who soon realizes his new-found friend believes she is at the opera and is about to watch a performance. As they chat, she confuses him with her dead husband, and together they begin to plan a trip devoted to music. The student gives a brilliant display of “Validation Therapy” (The essence of Validation Therapy is the reciprocated communication of respect which demonstrates that the other’s opinions are acknowledged and heard, regardless of whether or not the listener agrees with the content, and are accepted as a legitimate expression of feelings, rather than being dismissed.)

A rehearsal scene from "Strawberry Fields"

A rehearsal scene from “Strawberry Fields”

Park-goers young and old, beginning with a couple arguing about their relationship, gather at the nearby memorial to John Lennon, and the woman believes the opera has begun. When the woman’s son, accompanied by a nurse, and later joined by the woman’s daughter, tries to get his mother to go to “The Home,” she refuses. The chorus of park-goers support her, and the woman is thrilled to become the star in her own operatic fantasy. Suddenly the music turns solemn as everyone realizes the old woman has quietly slumped down on the bench and died at the very moment she is doing what she loves the most – being caught up in the wonder of opera!

Think about it! Here is an audience that includes residents with dementia. An inter-generational cast that includes fellow residents. An opera that treats dementia sensitively. A performance in our own home – and free! What can be better?

One more thing that made this performance special: Sally Stunkel, Associate Professor of Opera in the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, was the moving force for this Winter Term opera, which will be performed twice more on the Oberlin College campus. Ms. Stunkel’s own mother, who was herself diagnosed with dementia, was a Kendal at Oberlin resident.