This documentary video follows the making of an opera, based on the illness experiences of four Australians who have been diagnosed and treated for cancer. Their feelings about these experiences are translated into music (with lyrics) as they work closely with music therapist/composer, Emma O'Brien. As the three women and one man tell their stories of physical debility and emotional pain, the music therapist asks them to think in terms of color (they choose purple, black) and tones and rhythms that she plays for them on the piano.

When the narratives and their musical representations have evolved sufficiently, trained singers take on the roles "written" for them by the four former patients; the latter continue to be intimately involved in the opera's production, directed by David Kram. At the end of the project, which is also the conclusion of the film, the opera is performed in front of an audience (with musicians playing instruments, singing, and dramatic enactment) and the four people whose illness experience is performed take their bows together with the singers.


The project that this film documents has as its goal therapeutic healing of the trauma experienced by the four who have suffered from cancer and its medical therapy. From their own testimonials, the participants benefited greatly from their participation in the opera's production. Part of the benefit came from the camaraderie engendered by working with others who suffered similar trauma; part came from reconstructing their illness experiences, emotionally draining as the telling sometimes was; and part came from being able to represent pain and suffering in the emotional language of music.

Viewing the film provides an experience that is both the same as and different from reading or listening to illness narratives. On the one hand, we hear frank expressions of shock, fear, anger, resignation, courage; we learn how two of the marriages disintegrated as a result of the illnesses; we hear dissatisfaction with the attitude displayed by some physicians; we watch facial expressions, tears, smiles of satisfaction. On the other hand, we learn how these individuals feel through the music that they choose to represent their feelings. Hence the film offers a rich representation of the illness experience.

The documentary also, of course, demonstrates the use of music therapy for healing purposes. This kind of therapy is clearly labor-intensive and requires the expertise and monetary compensation of a number of individuals (the "More than Opera Team"). For those institutions and organizations that have the resources, or think they could obtain them, the film could be instructive and serve as an impetus to develop such projects.


Opera Therapy won the Silver Hugo award in Documentary: Arts/Humanities (Chicago International Film Festival) 2006. It is distributed by Contemporary Arts Media (see and select "Healing Arts").

Primary Source

Contemporary Arts Media