the magic of Streetwise Opera

Singing a New Melody: Streetwise Opera connects people who have been homeless with world-class artists and new commissions – John Nguyen/JNVisuals

It was a simple accident that put Denise Allison’s life in crisis. “I was working as a carer and my client fell and he grabbed my hand and broke it – I had to have four operations and couldn’t continue working,” she recalls. Because Allison, 74, was a live-in carer, that injury also left her homeless, and she spent eight months on London buses with her Freedom Pass to keep warm.

Allison is not alone. When Philippa Marlowe-Hunt was 18, her mother told her there was no room for her in her new house and ended up sleeping on the streets. “I was always on my guard,” recalls the 42-year-old. Passers-by made her feel “that you are nothing, you are scum – you are not a human being”.

Martin Ware, 62, a British Army veteran, had the added challenge of being in charge of his 11-year-old daughter when he ended up couch surfing. “He was scary and lonely,” he says. “But I had good colleagues and people from the church who were there for me.” Without that, he fears he, “would have gone downhill really fast.”

What this trio also have in common is that their lives have been enhanced by an initiative called Streetwise Opera, which runs workshops for people who have been homeless and pairs them with world-class artists.

The impetus for the project was a resident of the London charity The Passage who read a quote from Sir George Young, the former Tory cabinet minister who described the homeless as ‘the one you stomp on when you leave the opera “. Matt Peacock, opera critic and support worker, later staged The Little Prince at London’s Royal Opera House with residents of The Passage, and his success led Peacock to found Streetwise Opera in 2002.

Streetwise now works with thousands of people across five cities and has staged numerous plays. “I always wanted to sing,” says Marlowe-Hunt, “but people made fun of me.” Streetwise not only helped her ‘feel special’, but it gave her career opportunities: she is now a DJ on Lightning FM.

Ware, who was an Army bandmaster, notes that many of the group “would never have been involved with music, let alone opera – but you don’t have to come from a privileged background. We are trusted through our music directors to take the stage unashamed of what we have been through in life.

“It’s magical,” agrees Allison. “It gives you a focus every week and a family.” The project also has the royal seal of approval. “We performed at Buckingham Palace, when there was the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition,” says Allison. “And we’ve met Prince William quite a few times – he’s a patron of The Passage. He is simply the best – there are no airs with him.

This month sees Streetwise’s biggest project yet: Re:Sound –Voices of Our Cities. More than 100 participants from workshops in London, Manchester and Nottingham will join forces with the BBC Concert Orchestra and The Sixteen choir, to perform nine micro-operas at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank – and the concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 The works (each about four minutes long) were co-created by composers and participants, telling contemporary stories reflecting their experiences.

Composer Electra Perivolaris has partnered with the Magpie Project in London, which helps homeless mothers with children under the age of five. “Most of the women didn’t have English as their first language,” she says. “But we found ways to communicate that just relied on music, like call-and-response tunes.”

Members of Streetwise Opera to perform at Queen Elizabeth Hall later this month - John Nguyen/JNVisuals

Members of Streetwise Opera to perform at Queen Elizabeth Hall later this month – John Nguyen/JNVisuals

The Perivolaris micro-work is centered on the Thames. “For some, it reminds them of a river home or their own journey – many have fled war zones or domestic violence. In our piece, two women sit on opposite sides of the Thames and, by the end, they’ve noticed each other and are looking to the future.” The micro-opera stories also feature the historic Luddite protest movement in Nottingham, the Manchester worker bee and a bus blocked by environmental protesters. “If you restructure the work, it can absolutely reflect modern Britain,” says Perivolaris.

As Streetwise precedes row over the Arts Council which cut funding for the opera, Rachel Williams, its chief executive, says English National Opera – the cuts’ most high-profile victim – has been “an incredible partner and supportive of us for a long time.” .

And Perivolaris notes the irony of the government trying to decentralize funding, when this project already looks far beyond the capital. “It shows that it doesn’t have to be a competition, with one region taking away from another.”

Bill Chandler, conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, sums it up. “It’s an opportunity to make a point – to say that art matters and that with the right financial support, it can belong to all of us.”

Streetwise Opera’s Re:Sound – Voices of Our Cities is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 26 March. info:

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