This opera company is helping people in their recovery from COVID-19

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Natalie Marchant, Writer, Formative Content


  • ENO Breathe is helping COVID-19 patients to recover through singing, in order to manage breathlessness and anxiety.
  • The program is entirely virtual and done in collaboration with the UK’s National Health Service.
  • The culture sector, which employs 30 million people worldwide, has been hit hard by the pandemic.

An opera company in the UK is encouraging people recovering from COVID-19 to sing lullabies to help them manage breathlessness and anxiety.

The English National Opera’s ENO Breathe programme uses singing techniques to assist patients in their recovery. It’s delivered entirely online, in collaboration with teams from London-based Imperial College Healthcare, which is part of the country’s National Health Service.

Over six weekly group workshops, the initiative aims to empower sufferers of long COVID – those who can experience the effects of COVID-19 for weeks or months after the initial illness – by teaching them how to self-manage their symptoms.

Vocal support

Participants who have been medically assessed by a specialist long COVID clinic start with a one-to-one online conversation to discuss their suitability for the programme.

They then attend online sessions led by an ENO vocal specialist, who encourages them to join in activities designed to help them manage their symptoms.

These include warm-up exercises, practical tools to support improvement in breath control and posture, along with guided singing of culturally diverse lullabies, which are carefully selected for their ability to calm and soothe.

Why lullabies?

“Singing lullabies builds emotional connections with the other activities and exercises on the programme,” says Suzi Zumpe, creative director of ENO Breathe.

“Participants leave sessions with a calming song in their hearts – and crucially – this creates a positive emotional connection to a wealth of tools and exercises to manage their symptoms, making these exercises more memorable, more meaningful and more usable.”

As well as taking part in activities designed to support breath control, people gain access to online digital resources, including exercises and song sheets, along with audio and visual materials specially recorded by the ENO.

Participants can also take advantage of a range of post-programme digital resources and fortnightly online drop-in sessions to support their continued recovery. https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-1&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1361721901018660865&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.weforum.org%2Fagenda%2F2021%2F02%2Feno-singing-treatment-covid-19%2F&theme=light&widgetsVersion=889aa01%3A1612811843556&width=550px

Positive impact

ENO Breathe was rolled out nationally in January after a six-week trial in London last year, in which about 90% of participants said they thought the programme had a positive impact on both their breathlessness and their anxiety levels. Participants also reported notable improvements in symptoms such fatigue.

The results of the initiative were widely praised with Tonya Nelson of Arts Council England describing them as “very impressive”. ENO’s partnership with Imperial College Healthcare shows what is possible when creative organizations partner with healthcare providers, she added.

Culture crash

Arts and culture organizations have been severely affected by the pandemic, with venues across the world facing sudden drops in revenue due to the pandemic. In the UK alone, the introduction of lockdown saw a 70% drop in ticket revenue for performing arts venues during March 2020 compared to the year before – a trend that has worsened since.

a chart showing how COVID-19 decimated the arts sector in 2020
The arts sector has been hit hard by COVID-19. Image: Statista

UNESCO has called for targeted policies and actions to help the culture sector, which employs 30 million people worldwide. The film industry alone could lose about 10 million jobs this year, the UN’s education, science and culture body says.

Meanwhile, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says that venue-based sectors such as performing arts, museums and festivals were the hardest hit by social distancing measures. It estimates that jobs at risk range from 0.8% to 5.5% of employment across OECD regions.

The pandemic has also highlighted the insecurity of work in the cultural sector, with many workers employed on a part-time or freelance basis, the OECD says. Not only has COVID led to financial challenges, many arts workers also report negative impact on their mental health.

Creative solutions

Arts and events companies worldwide have instead had to come up with creative solutions to help weather the COVID-19 crisis.

Museums have put exhibitions online, normally packed music venues have held virtual gigs, and TV companies devised ways of filming while maintaining social distancing.

But the challenges faced by arts organizations due to the pandemic are likely to affect the production of cultural goods and services for months, if not years, to come, the OECD warns in a report called “Culture shock: COVID-19 and the cultural and creative sectors“.

“In the absence of responsive public support and recovery strategies, the downsizing of cultural and creative sectors will have a negative impact on cities and regions in terms of jobs and revenues, levels of innovation, citizen well-being and the vibrancy and diversity of communities,” it adds.

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