Sue and Vivien


Sue Evans in conversation with
Vivien Conacher

Vivien is a classically-trained mezzo soprano and founder of Songhaven. She runs live, professional, dementia-friendly concerts at public venues and in care homes. Recent concerts are now online as free films under the banner Songhaven at Home. People can also request Songhaven Dedications bespoke video performances. Sue Evans is a freelance writer.

Note 1: March-May

‘Public events aren’t going to be happening anytime soon,’ Vivien says. For her, the start of this alternate reality was deciding to perform a concert on 14 March behind closed doors. It was filmed for subsequent online broadcast.

Now, with no live performances, Songhaven at Home allows Vivien and her ensemble to continue to reach their audience, especially people in care homes. Online concerts are 15 minutes shorter than live performances. Vivien explains, ‘A minute in real life and a minute online feel very different.’ She tells of carers taking residents iPads to watch the concerts in their rooms and sing along to the sub-titles.

Songhaven concert filmed at St Paul’s Knightsbridge featuring Jenny Stafford (soprano), Vivien Conacher (mezzo-soprano), Alistair Ollerenshaw (baritone), and Chad Vindin (pianist)

Vivien doesn’t feel like making music personally right now and is concentrating on Songhaven’s online offerings. She worries about vulnerable people who might otherwise slip through the cracks. Songhaven at Home and Songhaven Dedications let Vivien and fellow artists share joy and stay positive during this uncertain time.

Note 2: May-July

When all the clouds darken up the skyway

There’s a rainbow highway to be found

On Thursday 18 June Vivien stood on Great Ormond Street singing Somewhere over the Rainbow, her first public performance since lockdown. What started as a window singalong pre-clap for carers led by Royal Opera chorus master William Spaulding has now become a socially-distanced street event. Not having connected with an audience for months, Vivien found the experience profound: ‘As a musician, performing for people is part of your identity. It’s hard when that disappears.’

Films of the complete Songhaven series are now available online. Songhaven at Home retains the atmosphere of performing live to a concert audience, a different feel from the abundance of recorded content played to camera. Vivien has secured funds to pay musicians for appearing in the films on top of their original performance fee. She’s touched by their gratitude: ‘The arts feel forgotten currently. People struggle to get by.’

Songhaven Dedications continues as an outlet for artists to respond to an audience. She tells of a wedding anniversary dedication, where one partner was in a care home and the other wasn’t.

Vivien has a busy part-time career with a music events company, engaged for now in virtual teambuilding using song writing.

An Australian national, she is applying for indefinite leave to remain in the UK.

Great Ormond Street singalong led by William Spaulding with Vivien Conacher and Chad Vindin on keyboard.

Note 3: July-August

Vivien and I are sitting outside La Fromagerie on Lamb’s Conduit Street on 26 August. I told her I hadn’t felt much like reading during lockdown. She said she hadn’t wanted to watch online concerts or operas.

            The previous day the Home Office had approved Vivien’s ILR application. The process was not without stress and she was feeling relieved. She should be eligible for UK citizenship within one year.

            The Sunday before she had performed outdoors under a gazebo in Oborne, Dorset. The artists had given voice to a repertoire of operatic arias and popular songs in a garden. The audience brought their own chairs. Vivien says she misses big live events where you’re riding on adrenalin, punctuated by periods of exhaustion and rest.

Vivien performing at The Grange in Oborne which is holding a weekly Sunday garden concert with 70 (socially distanced) audience members.

            She talks about friends, ‘gigging singers, whose work has disappeared,’ many in opera choruses or church choirs. ‘Imagine a wedding or a funeral without any singing,’ she adds. Many freelance artists aren’t eligible for self-employed grants or furlough schemes and consequently have no support.

            Vivien questions why singing in public was banned completely but pubs and restaurants could reopen. She cites a recent study into aerosol particles that showed singing to be no more dangerous than speaking. She is cautiously optimistic about restarting live Songhaven concerts provided they are safe, meaning for the foreseeable future they may need to be outdoors.

With Eleanor Ross (soprano), John Cuthbert (pianist), Jade Cuthbert (violinist).

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