Streetwise Opera

The hall fills completely with music and voice from the twenty participants.   In this scene the cast are trying to topple a statue.   As they sing, from the front they pull ropes, from the rear they push.

      Kingdoms come and Kingdoms go,

      We will never lose our power,

      We will never / lose our / power.

 Streetwise Opera runs a national music programme designed to help people who have experienced homelessness and other members of the community to make positive changes in their lives.  This evening I’m watching the charity’s Explore Group rehearsal at Methodist Central Hall, Manchester.

Steven (Participant): It makes me feel happy. If I’ve had a troublesome day, I come here to relax and release all my tension.

Darryl (Participant): I just go in the zone. I feel more comfortable to take part. I came for my own enjoyment. I like to help other people. When you first come you don’t know what the atmosphere is going to be like. But you come and it’s always a good vibe.

Many of those present tonight took part in The Passion last Easter at Campfield Market, a co-production from Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen, supported by HOME.

Darryl: I started learning as an understudy, then built up. It was a lot easier when I was rehearsing lines. But to do the first solo, it took a lot to have the confidence to do that. When I was in the truck, I didn’t know how many people there were – when you see that many people you just freeze. But I was shown deep breathing techniques to go on. I would love to do something like that again.

David (Participant): I was Barabbas. It meant a lot. Everyone was amazed we pulled it off, given where we had come from.

This evening, the group is working through a new composition, a five minute opera chorus inspired by Britten’s Canticles, to be performed at HOME on 11 April 2017 and then in London as part of a national concert. Composer Anna Appleby has created the work, with chorus lyrics written by participants.

Anna (Composer): It’s not that different to the finale for The Passion. Because that worked so well, I wanted to use it as a model. We used a similar process, and the same level of musical complexity, but they cope fine, they visualize the changes. There will be moments for some of them to shine.

After reiterating the values – being positive, having respect, maintaining focus, and enjoying yourself – the evening starts with a warm up that includes everyone in the room. What strikes me immediately is the way that everyone’s contribution is valued, and each participant can choose the extent to which they become involved.

Then we’re on to the main rehearsal. The group starts to sing ‘Tear the Dictator Down’ and the hall fills with voice and music. It’s really quite a moving experience, and I can see immediately how committed the participants are to the process and why The Passion was such a success.

They stop to discuss the scene. There is a lovely involvement and contribution to the themes – ideas of how to make the scene more vibrant, and a discussion of the music.  Above all there is a sense of humour and respect.

Anna: The composition is based around Britten’s canticle ‘Still Falls the Rain’ from the Edith Sitwell poem.   But everything in Manchester is rain so we took the idea of falling and conflict and got the image of the statue of a dictator in a town square, about to topple. First I got to know everyone at the Booth Centre [a homeless centre where Streetwise Opera also runs workshops] and Explore Group. We worked through mind maps of what might happen next; either we want the statue to fall or we don’t want the statue to fall. Then I got them to write lyrics on sheets.   There is a good mix of Booth Centre and Explore. I wanted to keep enough from each group, and make this work as a piece of music.

David: It’s quite good. My doctor said I had to do it. I like singing the songs. Quite difficult to learn sometimes. At the start you think ‘I’m never going to do this’, but when we perform it, it’s easy. We practice, practice, practice.

The whole group discuss different ways to topple a statue, how to use ropes and whether to topple the statue towards the audience. It’s a real team effort to work out each person’s role. Someone suggests they would be worried about what’s going to happen next. Another improvises a hammer to break the statue. Each idea is discussed. There is an organic feel, but at the same time a very clear focus on making the piece work. Anna suggests they need to stay frozen as the statue falls to create maximum tension.

Anna: It’s got a lot of political resonance with what’s going on in the world. It’s meant to be a timeless image. It’s about oppressed people and how they respond. But people can map their own ideas onto this. There’s a hopeful end, let’s build a better future together. It’s this idea of not just crushing something but trying to be uplifting.

Darryl:   Whatever opera we do, I give everything. I give a hundred percent in everything I do.

The new chorus will be performed as part of a public ‘Opera Hour’ concert at HOME on 11 April 2017.

You can view a rehearsal video here.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

4 Responses to “Streetwise Opera”

  1. anita ferguson says:

    Hi, My name Anita and I’m a performer in Manchester Explore Streetwise Opera. I’m so glad that you’ve done this. We’re always very pleased to talk about what we do. However. there seems to be more space given to the composer, who is very new to Streetwise and who we have only met about three times. It might have been good to talk to a few more singers and give their ideas more weight. We are a very democratic group and the professionals and performers are deemed as equally important. I hope you don’t mind my mentioning this. Thanks for your work.
    We are appearing at Manc Cathedral 7.30 pm Sunday 18th Shelter carols and again at the cathedral for The Booth Centre service at 2.30 0n Mon 19th. Hope to see you again some time. anita

    • QuietManDave says:

      Hi Anita, thanks for your comment. I really enjoyed meeting the group and getting involved in your warm ups. Yes, I ended up being somewhat limited with time as I only had the break to speak to performers; perhaps there might be another opportunity in the future to speak to more performers to get a broader range of ideas. I hope the rehearsals are going well. Certainly I’m very much looking forward to seeing the final work performed at HOME. I will try to make it down for the Booth Centre service on the Monday. Dave

      • anita ferguson says:

        Yes there were a number of our group members who were disappointed that there wAas insufficient time for them to speak to you. We are a very mixed group. Some can sing well, most cannot but work very hard at it and are slowly improving. Once they’ve been coming for a few months and especially after we’ve done a performance, confidence and self esteem soars and so does singing ability. It really is like magic! Hope to see you at the Cathedral’ Do contact me if you need any info etc. Anita

  2. anita ferguson says:

    Hi, My name Anita and I’m a performer in Manchester Explore Streetwise Opera. I’m so glad that you’ve done this. We’re always very pleased to talk about what we do. However. there seems to be more space given to the composer, who is very new to Streetwise and who we have only met about three times. It might have been good to talk to a few more singers and give their ideas more weight. We are a very democratic group and the professionals and performers are deemed as equally important. I hope you don’t mind my mentioning this. Thanks for your work.
    We are appearing at Manc Cathedral 7.30 pm Sunday 18th Shelter carols and again at the cathedral for The Booth Centre service at 2.30 0n Mon 19th. Hope to see you again some time.
    I recently wrote a review of our recent trip to see our friends The Sixteen, which is on the StW site. anita

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