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Street Cred
Opera Now

Street Cred

Posted April 2, 2018   |   1068 views   |   Music For the past 15 years, Streetwise Opera’s work in the sphere of homelessness has been challenging ideas about the contribution that some of the most marginalised members of society can make to the creative life of communities around Britain and now abroad. Hazel Rowland reports

For all its efforts to shake off its reputation as the preserve of a privileged few, opera is rarely associated with some of the most marginalised members of society – homeless people. Yet Streetwise Opera has set itself the challenge of putting music and theatre at the heart of its work with homeless organisations. The charity aims to improve the lives of people who have experienced homelessness, while highlighting a host of social ills that homelessness brings. It does this through presenting specially commissioned productions of music theatre featuring a mix of professional musicians, writers, directors and people from the homeless sector, supported by a year-round programme of singing and acting workshops across England, in cities including Newcastle, Manchester, Nottingham, Teesside and London.

 

To celebrate its 15th anniversary this year, Streetwise Opera has commissioned a new work, Tell Me The Truth About Love, taking its title from W H Auden’s poem, memorably set to music by Britten as part of his collection of Cabaret Songs. Together with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, performers from the charity’s Newcastle branch will premiere the opera at the Sage Gateshead this April. The work follows the story of Tina, a bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding who has little faith in love. Through listening to the experiences of the other wedding guests, she gradually changes her mind. The opera combines classical, pop and folk songs, along with original music by Will Todd and Anna Appleby. Its creative team, packing considerable professional clout, includes director Bijan Sheibani, designer Samal Blak, with story and text by Meriel Sheibani-Clare.

 

Tell Me The Truth About Love is not only the product of its writers. The performers from Streetwise Opera, all of whom have experienced periods of homelessness and social exclusion, have made a creative contribution too. For Maybe Just Maybe’ – a song by Will Todd especially commissioned for the opera – performers worked together in a writing workshop to come up with text around the theme of love, which they then sent to the composer. Martin Rivers, who has been part of Streetwise Opera for five years, underlines the importance of this sort of active participation: ‘There are verses there that we actually put in ourselves, which makes it all personal and quite special.’

 

This encounter between professional and non-professional creativity is central to the success of Streetwise Opera, which launched what seemed like an impossible mission in 2003 with an eye-opening ‘staging’ in Westminster Abbey of Benjamin Britten’s canticles, featuring James Bowman and Ian Partridge performing alongside a host of participants from the homeless community around Westminster, one of London’s wealthiest boroughs with gaping disparities between its rich and poor constituents. Matt Peacock, the charity’s artistic director, explains: ‘Productions that have mixed professional and non-professional cast tend to become more than the sum of their parts. And so the homeless people involved are not there in order to get benefits; they’re there because what they have to offer through their life-experiences and their imaginative worlds makes the standard of the whole work better.’ Past productions have received considerable critical acclaim, including performances of Rückert Lieder in Nottingham, Britten’s Ceremony of Carols in New College, Oxford and Time Flows, a mashup of Handel and Jimmy Hendrix in a warehouse on the Thames. In 2016 the BBC broadcast Streetwise Opera’s production of The Passion in Manchester, an abridged version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, presented in collaboration with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen. Peacock explains that, like all of Streetwise’s productions, Tell Me The Truth About Love ‘is not only a good thing that we’re doing socially. It’s going to be a cracking show too.’

 

These public performances are, nevertheless, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Streetwise Opera’s wider mission. ‘It’s much more about what happens in the workshops,’ Peacock says. ‘We’re there to meet two big needs in homelessness, which aren’t necessarily being met in other services: well-being and social inclusion.’ The priority in tackling homelessness is, of course, to provide people with housing and employment. However, problems can persist once these issues have been addressed: ‘Once you’re rehoused, you can end up in a place where you don’t have any community infrastructure,’ Peacock explains, ‘so it’s really vital to get people doing things in the community and meeting new people. Our workshops aim to address these aspects.’

 

The value placed on the workshops is also shared by the performers. Norma Wright, who plays Nana Rose in Tell Me The Truth About Love, says that attending the workshops ‘gives us somewhere to come every week – you feel as if you’re a family: included, not excluded. It’s wonderful, absolutely.’ This sense of inclusion is important in changing what are often negative perceptions of self-worth among homeless people. ‘One of the lads summed it up when I first came here,’ Kathleen Young, another Streetwise performer, explains: ‘He just said, “Welcome to the family,” and that’s exactly what it’s like!’

 

For Peacock, the BBC broadcast was a highpoint in the last 15 years. But he also emphasises that Streetwise Opera’s greatest success is what happens to the performers. ‘It’s great when people are given the wherewithal to find accommodation or training or employment; but it’s also fantastic to see people gaining the confidence to stick up for themselves in a world where they are used to being ignored. All of these things that seem quite small but are actually huge in people’s live. Those personal triumphs are the successes.’

 

Streetwise Opera’s work continues. Aside from working on its next big production in two years, the charity recently started With One Voice, an international movement that aims to connect organisations like Streetwise Opera with others around the world. Peacock hopes that it will shape policy on the arts and homelessness, and build awareness of how the arts can support homeless people around the world. Having already had a significant impact on the lives of its performers, Streetwise Opera is certainly well placed to achieve its larger ambitions.

 

Tell Me The Truth About Love takes place at The Sage, Gateshead on 14 and 15 April (with matinee and evening performances on both days). Visit www.streetwiseopera.org

 


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