the opera sung by the homeless

After being born homeless, Phillippa Marlowe-Hunt, 42, went on to spend most of her life couch surfing as a young adult. Next week, 20 years after her last night’s sleep, she will sing opera to hundreds of people at London’s Southbank Centre.

Phillippa is one of around 100 experienced homeless people who will perform alongside the BBC Concert Orchestra and Sixteen Choir as part of Streetwise Opera’s Re:sound programme.

Three casts, made up of people from Nottingham, Manchester and London, will take to the stage at key venues in their respective cities before reuniting for a final performance at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

Each show will feature nine micro-works, co-written by locals who have been homeless in the past, and will feature stories about the regions in question, with references to Manchester bees, muskpeas and environmental protests in London.

The performances will take place in front of an animated background produced by the 1927 theater company, designed during the workshops with the participants of Streetwise Opera.

The initiative, pioneered by Streetwise Opera, aims to inspire and empower formerly homeless people as they rebuild their lives and to change how homeless people are perceived in society.

“It’s very common that when someone is homeless they lose their self-esteem because they’re being treated horribly,” says Rey Trombetta of Streetwise Opera. “A lot of people walk the streets and don’t even engage with a homeless person, and then suddenly they see him on stage at the Southbank Centre; we hope it will change their perception of homelessness and show that they can help build a more beautiful world.”

By collaborating with world-class musicians and conductors in the industry, the organization aims to reinvent traditional repertoire in a way that makes the medium more diverse and inclusive.

“At least in this country, many people feel that opera is not for them; it’s for the elite, the rich, the people who speak several languages,” Rey said.

“If people who are homeless or living in poverty can engage with opera and take ownership of it, it sends a very powerful message about what opera can be. Whoever wants to own it can, as long as it has the right support,” he told her.

Since finding Streetwise Opera through remedial college six years ago, Phillippa has found a support network of like-minded individuals and has noticed improvements in her confidence and self-esteem.

“People always told me I couldn’t sing, but I’m finally finding my voice here,” she said. “Performing with Streetwise makes you feel like you’re someone, you’re being noticed.”

Brian Ward, 64, has been singing with the group for 11 years and said the opportunities to perform had made him a “better person”.

He spent the better part of 10 years between a cardboard box in a London garage and a hospital due to lack of nutrition. With no previous opera experience, he was initially shy about getting involved, but soon found himself getting better and better.

“I am very happy to be part of the group,” he said. “It’s a great experience singing with people I’ve never met before and learning songs about the city I’m from. And you feel part of something, there are people here you can trust.

She said her new hobby has also helped eradicate her depression and anxiety.

“I’m so proud of what I’m doing with the group, it’s changed my life forever.”

Re:sound is an annual festival that encourages artists and audiences to rediscover the cities they live in, through the perspectives of people who have been homeless.

Since 2002 Streetwise Opera has held regular singing and creative workshops in London, Manchester and Nottingham. In addition to the sessions, which take place in homeless shelters and arts centres, the organization has hosted a number of online and stage productions, including at the Royal Opera House.

In 2020-21, the organization carried out 1,341 activities for 226 people who had previously lived on the streets.

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