The mezzo-soprano Kate Woolveridge has performed on grand stages in front of thousands of people but at the moment is the star of much more intimate sessions, helping groups of long Covid sufferers by passing on secrets from the world of opera.
Woolveridge is one of a team of singers and teachers being beamed into participants’ living rooms and kitchens via Zoom for a Welsh National Opera (WNO) project designed to give them techniques and strategies used by performers to support breath control, lung function, circulation and posture.
More than 100 people have already taken part in the Wellness with WNO scheme and such is its success that it is being expanded across Wales.
The Guardian joined a session this week when Woolveridge worked with six women. There was joy, a lot of smiles and a few tears as she encouraged them to find their “inner opera singer”, a proud and powerful figure.
Woolveridge first asked the six to plant their feet on the ground, picture the energy beneath the Earth’s surface and try to connect to it, enjoying the feeling of “groundedness”.
She invited them to stretch and notice the strength in their bodies before leading breathing exercises (or games as she preferred to call them) that included drawing a “status bubble” around themselves. Woolveridge asked one of the group to imagine what colour this bubble might be and she opted for “mushy pea green”.
Another was asked to suggest a scent – she went for rose – and the group was asked to take in, then breathe out the imaginary fragrance. She asked them to check how much air they had left – and most said they still had some breath, which they found comforting.
The group listened to a recording of the WNO performing the Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly. “You can breathe, hum along or just be,” Woolveridge told them.
Finally came the singing. Only Woolveridge was unmuted. She played the piano and sang along – rounds of “doobie doobie doo” and to conclude, a folk song called Woyaya that ends: “But we’ll get there / Heaven knows how we will get there / But we know we will.”
One of the women, Dee, was close to tears as she explained how the sessions had helped. “This is the first really positive thing I have done for the last two years,” she said. “But I feel I’m towards the end of that horrendous, rough, muddy road. It’s been amazing.”
Carolyn, who has trouble talking, said: “I haven’t spoken for 14 months with my own voice. For many months I had no sound at all. Now it comes and goes and I’ve been left with a permanent cough.
“Medically I’ve got a team around me that’s been really helpful but it’s this sort of programme that has really made the difference. My vocal cords don’t close when I speak but they do when I sing.
“I get more sound when I sing than when I speak. That’s positive that I hear something coming back. It has also helped me control my breath better. There are times you try to walk upstairs and you can’t breathe. These techniques help you to come out the other side a bit quicker.”
After the session, Rachel Wallbank, of the long Covid rehab team at the Cardiff and Vale university health board, said Wales had a long tradition of using music as therapy. “The male voice choirs in south Wales were about social interaction and improving lung health,” she said.
Wallbank said there had been examples of people with long Covid using techniques they had learned through the WNO scheme to control their breathing and avoid having to go to A&E.
Donna Jenkins, 48, from mid Wales, who took part in the session, said she had had the “beast” of Covid three times.
“I lost my voice and developed a stammer and had to have speech and language therapy for eight months.” She said the sessions provided practical advice and a community.
“A group like this gives us a sense of belonging, that shared experience. We join the sessions and we’re full of love and understanding for each other. In my daily life I don’t come across people in the same situation. There’s hope and we can learn from each other.”
At one point Jenkins said she thought she would die of Covid but is much more confident now she can fight the after-effects. “I can just start singing ‘doobie doobie doo’ and that helps so much.”