Saturday 31 October 2015

Creating something extraordinary: my encounter with Streetwise Opera's Matt Peacock

Penny Woolcock (director) and Dick Bird (designer) in Campfield Market Hall, the venue for The Passion
Penny Woolcock (director) and Dick Bird (designer) in Campfield Market Hall, the venue for The Passion
At Easter 2016, Streetwise Opera joins forces with Harry Christophers & The Sixteen to perform a staged version of Bach's St Matthew Passion in Campfield Market Hall in Manchester, in a production directed by Penny Woolcock, designed by Dick Bird. With such an intriguing combination of forces, I met up with Streetwise Opera's founder and chief executive Matt Peacock at their London offices to find out more.

Streetwise Opera is a charity which uses music to help support people who have experienced homelessness. The idea is to use ambitious opera productions, which do not compromise their artistic integrity, to show that everyone has the capacity to be extraordinary and can do things they have never dreamed of. The company aims to help people remove the boundaries that they impose on themselves. Homelessness does not just involve practical things like accommodation, but also involves issues like lack of self worth and low well being, and the people involved have been through traumas often from childhood. Matt is an eager and engaging spokesman for the company's work, and explains how the Arts can help people see that they have achievements and skills.

A glorious blank canvas will be turned into an operatic world

Streetwise Opera - Canticles (2002) - photo credit Streetwise Opera
Streetwise Opera - Canticles (2002)
photo credit Streetwise Opera
Doing an adaptation of Bach's St Matthew Passion has long been the company's ambition, and it is coming to fruiting in a co-production with The Sixteen in association with Home in Manchester, a new arts venue which combines the Library Theatre and Corner House. A strand of site-specific events, originally developed when the venue was closed for redevelopment, is continuing and St Matthew Passion will be part of this.

Penny Woolcock and Harry Christophers have created shorter, hour long version of the work which will have a new finale written by James MacMillan. It will be fully staged and there has been deep integration between The Sixteen and Streetwise. Four singers from The Sixteen are embedded with Streetwise and attend workshops in Manchester. They will perform with Streetwise and sing the arias, whilst Harry Christophers and full Sixteen chorus and orchestra come later. It will be a promenade production, very site specific using what Matt terms the 'glorious blank canvas' of a Victorian market hall. It is a huge space which will be turned into an operatic world. Though Manchester International Festival has used for a few performances, including a Bjork gig, it is still a market hall with occasional markets in it.

Social well-being is an important part of Streetwise Opera's work, but Matt realised early on that if you do not have an equal focus on the artistic element then it undermines the social. So they do work of significant artistic interest, from their first production in 2002 of Britten's Canticles in Westminster Abbey.

What happens after the darkest hour?

Streetwise Opera - Whirlwind (2006) - photo credit Streetwise Opera
Streetwise Opera - Whirlwind (2006)
photo credit Streetwise Opera
The productions occupy an interesting territory involving participation and community, but Matt feels that they can be artistically exalted and that Streetwise does not have to compromise. It is most important that they do not set the performers up for failure, and so it needs the right process framework around it. There are certain qualities of piece which are most interesting to the company, particularly new commissions and pieces not meant to be staged which means that the performers can take ownership and put their own stamp on it. In this way, they help the performers realise that they too can be creative and make something special.

As far as Matt is concerned, the St Matthew Passion is one of the most amazing pieces ever written, about hope and redemption. James MacMillan visited Streetwise's performers and has written a script for the new finale with them. This deals with what happens after the crucifixion, what happens after the darkest hour?

Of course, there are tricky aspects to choosing a setting of one of the passions. Early on in his career, when Matt was a homeless support worker they were told to avoid religion and politics. These are subjects which can get people excited and so they have to tread carefully. For the performers, some will find religion not relevant, for others it will be a source of pain and other may be from other religions. But the work was selected because it is a great work, and terrific, compelling story. There is a universality to it. A work about vulnerability and pain, and Penny Woolcock is keen to show that Jesus embodies us all, so that he will be played by Streetwise performers.

Homeless people deserve a Rolls-Royce experience

Streetwise Opera - Fables: A Film Opera (2010) - photo credit Streetwise Opera
Streetwise Opera - Fables: A Film Opera (2010)
photo credit Streetwise Opera
Matt has known The Sixteen well through various parts of his life. When thinking about Streetwise Opera productions he bore in mind a statement by John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue, that homeless people deserve a Rolls-Royce experience. To give the Streetwise performers the best of something, it struck him that The Sixteen were just such a Rolls-Royce. For all their projects, Matt likes to work with the best directors and performers.

Matt returns to his point about reducing the boundaries people impose on themselves. By integrating the Streetwise performers with the best from the arts world, it shows music as metaphor: 'If I can do this, what else can I achieve?'. Talking to The Sixteen, they discussed various works but it was the St Matthew Passion which excited them. Though primarily a concert group, The Sixteen worked on a new community opera for Spitalfields, We are Shadows, and the group certainly had the appetite for more operatic work.

Matt thinks that the process gets really interesting when both groups can teach each other something. The Sixteen is not in staged productions very often, so it was inspiring for them too. The performers from Streetwise don't sing as well as The Sixteen, but Matt feels they bring energy and dynamism to the stage. And it is important they feel they have said something artistically, and don't just get a pat on the back.

Early on in the Streetwise Opera's history they did not really know what would happen when combining Streetwise and profession performers. They try for real integration between professionals and non-professions, and something happens, something new, and they get audience members afterwards asking which were the Streetwise performers and which were the professionals. They do performances in non-traditional spaces, and Matt find it more interesting if there is not barrier between performers and audience. He points out that watching an opera sitting in the dark really on came in with Wagner, and that previous to that opera was a highly social experience.

Workshops, Opera and working abroad

Streetwise Opera - The Answer to Everything (2013) - photo credit Streetwise Opera
Streetwise Opera - The Answer to Everything (2013)
photo credit Streetwise Opera
Work on the St Matthew Passion started in Spring 2015 with a year of weekly workshops in Manchester though they are taking it quite gently, after all it is quite a dark piece and challenging musically. And the workshop is doing it in tandem with another piece, something from Kurt Weill's Streetscene (a work which the group will see when it is performed at the Royal Northern College of Music).

Streetwise Opera works in three main areas. There is the workshop programme, with weekly workshops in five different cities and in each city there are two groups, one in a homeless centre and one in the community. One of their workshops is based at the Sage Gateshead, which means the performers are taken out of their homeless environment. Then there are the opera productions; they do a main opera production every two years, as well as a little opera season with a 30 minute new commission, the last of which was performed at Tete a Tete. Finally, the team at Streetwise Opera are working on international projects, trying to galvanise the arts and the homeless around the world, particularly in countries hosting the Olympics. They did a big London event and were asked to work in Rio and in Tokyo.

Matt is finding it fascinating going to other countries and seeing their attitude to the arts. They are working in Brazil at the moment, building capacity towards an event for the Olympics there. There is far less money for the art in Brazil, but there is far greater acceptance of the importance of the art particularly from politicians. The UK's funding is buoyant in comparison, yet politicians are never seen going to the opera. Opera is seen as a bit of a luxury and attending is political suicide.

In Brazil, each state has a homeless people's movement, with links to the government, and Matt feels that this is something we could import into the UK to try to change how homelessness is perceived. In Brazil there are 1000's on the streets in poverty with no social housing, but the arts are important as they are seen to give people dignity. There is a passion for the arts in the country which Matt hopes may rub off on the UK.

What the performers can do will far exceed expectations

Matt would like to see a greater sense of integration in the arts sector in the UK. Most companies now have learning and participation groups but these are too separate from the main stage and this is a missed opportunity. When performing Poulenc's Carmelites the Royal Opera created a community chorus and Matt though that it brought so many fascinating things to the performances. Instead of pulling back the Royal Opera really gave something; it is a very different way of working but one which could be emulated more. Homeless people face daily challenges, and working with them you have to build trust, so this sort of integration can sound like a crazy idea, but Matt thinks that if the Royal Opera and Streetwise can do it, so can others. And what the performers can do will far exceed expectations.

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