‘I was homeless, opera gave me focus and a family’: the magic of Streetwise Opera

Singing a fresh tune: Streetwise Opera links people who have been homeless with world-class performers and new commissions - John Nguyen/JNVisuals
Singing a fresh tune: Streetwise Opera links people who have been homeless with world-class performers and new commissions - John Nguyen/JNVisuals

It was a simple accident that threw Denise Allison’s life into crisis. “I was working as a carer and my client fell, grabbed my hand and broke it – I had to have four operations, and couldn’t keep working,” she recalls. Because Allison, 74, was a live-in carer, that injury also made her homeless and she spent eight months riding 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 place and she wound up sleeping on the streets. “I was always on my guard,” the 42-year-old recalls. Passersby made her feel “that you’re nothing, you’re scum – you’re not a human”.

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

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

The spur for the project was a resident at London charity The Passage reading a quote from Sir George Young, the former Tory cabinet minister who described the homeless as “what you step over when you come out of the opera”. Matt Peacock, an opera critic and support worker, then staged The Little Prince at London’s Royal Opera House with The Passage residents, and its success led to Peacock founding Streetwise Opera in 2002.

Streetwise now works with thousands of people across five cities, and has staged numerous operas. “I always wanted to sing,” says Marlowe-Hunt, “but people used to take the mickey out of me.” Streetwise has not only helped her to “feel special”, but has led to career opportunities – she has now become a DJ on Lightning FM.

Ware, who used to be an army bandsman, notes that several of the group “would never have been involved with music, let alone opera – but you don’t need to be from a privileged background. We’ve got the confidence through our musical directors to get up on stage without being ashamed of what we’ve gone through in life.”

“It’s magic,” agrees Allison. “It gives you a focus every week, and a family.” The project even has the Royal seal of approval. “We performed at Buckingham Palace, when they had the Leonardo da Vinci display on,” says Allison. “And we’ve met Prince William quite a few times – he’s a patron of The Passage. He’s just the best: there’s 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 are joining forces with the BBC Concert Orchestra and choir The Sixteen, 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 operas (each around four minutes) were co-created by composers and participants, telling contemporary stories reflecting their experiences.

Composer Electra Perivolaris collaborated with London’s Magpie Project, which helps homeless mothers with children aged under five. “The majority of the women didn’t have English as a first language,” she says. “But we found ways of communicating that relied only on music, like call-and-response melodies.”

Streetwise Opera members are performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall later this month - John Nguyen/JNVisuals
Streetwise Opera members are performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall later this month - John Nguyen/JNVisuals

Perivolaris’s micro-opera centres on the Thames. “For some, it reminds them of a river back home or their journey – many 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 historical Luddite protest movement in Nottingham, the Manchester worker bee, and a bus held up by environmental protestors. “If you redevelop opera, it can absolutely reflect modern Britain,” says Perivolaris.

While Streetwise predates the row over the Arts Council slashing opera funding, Rachel Williams, its chief executive, says that English National Opera – the most high-profile victim of cuts – has been “an incredible, supportive partner to us for a long time”.

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

Bill Chandler, director of the BBC Concert Orchestra, sums it up. “It’s a chance 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 March 26. Info: streetwiseopera.org