[Hpn] London, UK - Opera sung by the homeless can change lives - The UK Times - November 25, 2003

HC Covington HC Covington" <hcc@icanamerica.org
Tue, 25 Nov 2003 07:24:17 -0500

Opera sung by the homeless can change lives

Living ruff
By Robert Thickesse - The UK Times - November 25, 2003

London,  UK - IT’S A MORE unlikely marriage than Jade Goody
and the coughing major.

Opera, the rich man’s plaything, the incomprehensible
art-form that swallows up vast amounts of your taxes to
entertain idle plutocrats, may be many things but it’s
hardly the great social leveller.

And yet now it has got together with a group with an even
bigger PR problem: the homeless.

That’s right, the ones in cardboard boxes who opera patrons
step gingerly over as they emerge from red-plush splendour,
the ones who sell The Big Issue with conspicuous lack of
success outside the country’s opera houses.

In May 2002 there was a show in Westminster Abbey in which
120 homeless people from various London shelters, together
with a group called Streetwise Opera, performed the world
premiere staging of Benjamin Britten’s Canticles, and by
common consent it was the most moving and uplifting piece of
music theatre in the entire year.

And next week in Oxford they are doing it again, with
Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and Winter Words this time, in
the chapel of New College, involving the college choir,
professional musicians, technical crew, the theatre director
Kenneth Richardson and people from 11 homeless centres in
the city.

Streetwise Opera is the creation of Matthew Peacock, a music
journalist who got fed up with walking past homeless people
and feeling helpless.

“I used to mouth off at dinner parties until one of my
flatmates told me to stop whining on and do something.”

He became a volunteer at the Passage, a London day centre
that looks after 200 people, before getting the idea to
somehow combine his worlds.

“I knew music could help because it’s such a great

These are two worlds that are totally misunderstood. It’s
only the audiences that give opera the reputation of being a
rich person’s diversion: the art-form itself is full of
humanism and idealism, and I knew that the homeless could
get as much out of it as anyone.”

We agree that the homeless have a fairly monstrous image
problem, with their front-of-house staffed by the junkies,
drunks and derelicts you see on the streets.

“When you get to know the people in the centres you think,
there but for the grace of God . . . Most are there through
the most enormous bad luck: problems with marriage,
accommodation, bereavement, mental health — sometimes the
whole lot.”

Like the Westminster Abbey production, the New College show
is a promenade performance using various parts of the chapel
and college to stage this conflation of Britten’s works
(plus his gorgeous Hymn to the Virgin).

The Ceremony of Carols is a cycle of medieval and
16th-century Christmas poems set for boys’ voices and harp,
one of Britten’s best-loved works and inherently dramatic —
as was everything that Britten wrote.

These childlike carols frame performances by the tenor Tom
Raskin of the very different Winter Words, eight songs on
late poems by Thomas Hardy, full of adult melancholy but
with the poet’s characteristic spirituality and a sort of
hopeful stoicism.

It is the way Streetwise Opera works that makes their
performances so different. The New College and Westminster
shows are just the highest profile of many concerts they put
on after three months’ workshopping in the various centres.
This year there are 220 workshops in London, largely
organised by the singer Rowan Fenner, resulting in 25
informal concerts, one of which was an opera cabaret at
Embankment Gardens.

“It’s an oasis where people don’t have to think about
homelessness for a while,” says Peacock. “And they bring a
great deal of insight to the workshops: the productions
really are their productions, the result of discussions with
the director and musicians. They bring lives that have been
turned upside down; you can channel that in an artistic way
and come up with something extraordinary.

“Nobody is pressurised to perform but those who don’t also
have a vital role, whether it’s handing out programmes or
lighting the candles. My only desire is to make people who
are demoralised and demotivated feel better about
themselves, and also to show the public that they have some

Some of the participants go on to take up work placements
with theatres like the Oxford Playhouse, the Bridewell and
Battersea Arts Centre in London. “They may not be about to
become opera stars,” Peacock says, “but it gives people a
chance to feel part of society, to get something decent on
their CV, to give them confidence to talk to their relief
workers and housing officers.”

He makes modest claims, but Peacock is passionate about the
potential for good that Streetwise represents. “I just want
to change people’s perceptions,” he says — to introduce two
groups from unimaginably different parts of society,
opera-goers and the homeless, to each other in a place where
they can meet as equals.

A Ceremony of Carols & Winter Words, Nov 28-29 ,
New College Chapel, Oxford. Box office 01865 305305;
www.streetwiseopera.org 020-7924 3131

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