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Opera music is being used as a powerful way to combat the misery of homelessness and other social problems. PETER BARRON reports
The music was coming from a Streetwise Opera group, part of a national network which uses the power of music to help people turn their lives around. There are groups in London, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle and Middlesbrough – giving hope through music to those who have experienced homelessness, now or in the past, as well as people suffering from other social problems.
“I remember asking, ‘What’s that music?’ and I was told it was Streetwise Opera and that I should join in. It was the last thing I was expecting when I checked in to a rehab centre – to start singing opera.”
That was three years ago and Charlene has emerged from the dark place with vastly improved self-esteem and confidence and she attributes the transformation to the friends, support and sense of belonging she has found through music.
“Before I found Streetwise Opera, my self-confidence was minus 50 and my self-esteem was minus 100. Now, I’m a different person. If I feel myself falling back into that dark place, I have somewhere to turn, someone to talk to."
“The music sessions are like a gift from God. They lift my spirits – in some ways they’ve replaced the rush I got from drugs.”
The tears come easily when Charlene begins to explain that her mother had died just a few days earlier but, before she died, she saw her daughter come out from the dark place to perform a solo in an opera she’d helped to write, called The River Keeper.
“Afterwards, my mum told me that she was proud of me and I was elated that she’d seen I’d achieved something with my life.”
Streetwise Opera celebrates its 15th anniversary next summer and the Middlesbrough group was formed eight years ago. For the past two years, it has met between 2pm and 4pm every Friday at the Mima art gallery.
“It works both ways,” explains Mima director Alistair Hudson. “It helps to give us a place in the community, and it gives the performers a place to feel part of.”
This particular Friday afternoon’s meeting begins with workshop leader David Pisaro – tousle-haired, bearded and infectiously-enthusiastic – forming the group into a circle and putting them through warm-up exercises.
Each member has to introduce themselves in opera style and I – as a visitor – am expected to play my part: “My name is Peter,” I sing in the best Pavarotti I can muster.
“Very brave,” nods David as the rest of the group applauds. I have passed the test. I feel accepted.
Next comes the “rhythm exercise” which involves lots of clapping, knee slapping and clicking of fingers in routines that are too complicated for my simple brain.
I’m not the only one: “Until today, I thought I had rhythm – but now I’m not so bloody sure,” shrieks a performer called Harry. His eyes, which have seen tough times, light up and his weather-worn face creases into a smile. Like Charlene, Harry has found a happy home.
After the warm-ups, it’s down to the more serious business. Having already performed Carmen, The Barber of Seville, and L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), they are now working on Don Giovanni – not just performing it, but interpreting it and staging it under Dave’s guidance.
It is uplifting to see the camaraderie that has grown within the group. They have bonded through the music in ways that none of them truly expected. They are friends who not only come together to sing and act, but who also have trips to theatres to see operas performed.
To mark the 15th anniversary, five composers have been appointed to work with the groups around the country, and Middlesbrough’s composer is Bushra El-Turk, who is meeting the group for the first time.
At the next workshop, she will begin composing a libretto with the group’s help, and next summer, the compositions from around the country will be brought together for an anniversary performance.
Streetwise Opera was born out of a throwaway comment from a politician who said “homeless people are the sort of people you step over coming out of the opera house”. Streetwise Opera’s founder Matt Peacock, an opera critic, set out 15 years ago to change that perception and put homeless people into opera houses. In London, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle and Middlesbrough, he has succeeded.
Jacqui Webb joined the Middlesbrough group simply as a supporter. She was a member of Middlesbrough Town Hall Community Choir, with a passion for singing, and she’d heard about the difference being made by Streetwise Opera. Today, she is no longer a mere supporter – she is a fully-fledged member who comes back week after week because she enjoys it so much.
“What we all have to remember is that we are all capable of ending up homeless – but, in the end, we are all people,” says Jacqui.
As she finishes her sentence, the rehearsal room at Mima, the happy Friday afternoon home for this remarkable group of people, is filled again with the sound of Charlene Gibson singing... and then bursting into another fit of the giggles.
WHEN it all became too much for Charlene Gibson, when the dark place she was in became unbearable, it was the music drifting in from the back room of the drugs and alcohol rehabilitation centre that changed her life.
Charlene, 29, had referred herself to the Hope North-East centre, in Middlesbrough, in the midst of an addiction which grew from personal problems she would rather keep private.
“I just couldn’t deal with life anymore,” she says. “And then I heard the music.”