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Homeless people take centre stage

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Homeless people take centre stage with lauded opera company


Winter 2010/11, Vol 14 No 2


Linda Hossie

The homeless are those people you step over when you come out of the opera house. That’s how a British MP in 1999 dismissed this population. One year later, a group of homeless people proved him wrong by moving from the street onto the stage in the children’s opera The Little Prince, performed at the world-famous Royal Opera House in London.

The connection between these two events is a man named Matthew Peacock. Peacock was volunteering at a homeless shelter in Westminster when the MP made his now notorious comment. A former singer and the assistant editor of Opera magazine, Peacock was the logical person to steer the shelter staff’s outrage toward something tangible.

That something became Streetwise Opera, a company of people who are homeless, for which The Little Prince was the pilot project.

Confounding the stigma of homelessness is Streetwise’s raison d’être. Opera is such an ambitious undertaking that if homeless people can do it, they can do anything, says Peacock. By taking part in performances, they prove themselves and other people wrong about their limitations.

It’s a big challenge for a population that is very vulnerable and has extremely low self-esteem, Peacock says. Some Streetwise participants struggle with substance use issues, but more common, affecting about 40 per cent, are mental health issues, from depression to undiagnosed psychosis. “These people have become homeless because of huge turmoil in their lives,” says Peacock. “Streetwise proves they can do something so extraordinary that it opens doors for them.”
For one performer, the experience was a revelation: “The feelings of elation and accomplishment which I felt standing on the stage to acknowledge the applause were something I will never forget and played a large part in helping me to overcome my difficulties and start putting my life back into order,” he says.

Now working on its eighth production, Streetwise Opera has received glowing reviews, not only for tackling stigma, but also for the brilliance of its music. Respected music critic Rodney Milnes of The Times gave five stars to the 2002 production of Benjamin Britten’s The Canticles at Westminster Abbey. “Truly awe-inspiring,” he wrote in his review. “Cynics detecting political correctness in overdrive would have felt satisfied if the results were makeshift and amateurish, but the opposite was true. Musically the performances were superb.”

From the beginning, Peacock has hired professionals to train the singers, not just because professionals provide the best training, but because paid voice coaches will show up. “It’s not just a volunteer gig they might ditch if the pressures of their lives get in the way,” says Peacock. “We work with vulnerable people and they can’t be let down because they so often do get let down in life.”

These paid professionals also take part in Streetwise productions. In the first few years, Peacock had to recruit them, but the company now has such a good reputation that Peacock must constantly turn professionals away.

This support and enthusiasm translate into inspiring success stories: A couple of Streetwise alumni have pursued performing arts degrees. One participant reduced his methadone prescription by 70 per cent. A man who had been ostracized by his family found the confidence to send them tickets to a performance—his daughters came, bringing a granddaughter he had never met.

The company also celebrates more subtle achievements. One man had worn the same jacket for years, refusing to take it off because it contained all his worldly possessions. But he took it off to don a costume for a performance. A support worker who had known the man for years couldn’t believe it.
Backing up such inspiring anecdotes is Streetwise’s evaluation system, which shows that 50 per cent of participants have had a change for the better in their lives.

Buoyed by its success, Streetwise is taking its opera magic beyond England. The company’s last production, My Secret Heart, was filmed and has played worldwide, from the Edinburgh International Film Festival to the SuperDeluxe art space in Tokyo. The film version has reached more than 175,000 people, and the company has done workshops in Japan and Australia.

But not everyone who is homeless is ready for Streetwise. “People do fall off the radar,” Peacock says, “but not as many as you’d think.” Those who stay have launched into a new production, Fables—A Film Opera, motivated by a new sense of possibility. “We’re trying to give people an experience that raises their confidence and self-esteem,” says Peacock. “It gives me huge satisfaction that some people have gone on out of homelessness.”