I was dreading the Opera Workshop at the library, but as the chairperson of the Friends of Redcar Library group – and because only one other person had signed up for the workshop – I felt it my duty to support it. I can’t sing (at all), and the thought of trying to hit high notes in the middle of the library made me cringe. But, I went along thinking that if nothing else at least I was a fine, upstanding member of the community. I talked my sister, Lindsey into coming too – it was my birthday after all! But I could tell she was thinking ‘what the hell am i doing?’.
There were two people setting up in the meeting room as we arrived, a lady behind a massive keyboard and a cool looking American bloke (I’m sorry but I’m terrible with names). Another lady turned up – so there was three of us ‘outsiders’, and then two other members of the Streetwise Opera group had got the bus over from Middlesbrough to get involved.
I asked them what it was all about, they told me that in 2000, a guy called Matt Peacock was volunteering at a homeless shelter called Passage, and one of the residents read out a comment in the paper that a politician had made: “The homeless are the people you step over coming out of the Opera House”. Well, it just so happened that Matt was also an Opera critic, and this comment really pissed him off , but also motivated him to work with residents of the homeless shelter to put on their own version of The Little Prince at the Royal Opera House. The idea was to challenge people’s perceptions of homelessness.
The performance was critically acclaimed and a massive success and afterwards the performers asked ‘what next?’ and so the Streetwise Opera initiative was set up. There are now groups all over the world. An inspiring story!
I confessed that the closest I’d come to opera is watching Julia Roberts being whisked off to one by Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. They laughed and said they’d heard that a few times.
“So how do you entice people into opera if they have no interest in it?”
One of the Streetwise Opera members who’d got the bus from Middlesbrough spoke up. She said that when she was relatively new to the area (her home being in Africa) – a friend convinced her to come along to a meeting and she’s been going every Friday since. “It was like being part of a family” she said. And that is one of the initiative’s biggest aims – to help people to feel included and supported by a community. She even gets to sing songs from her own village, as do many of the others – sharing their cultural songs with one another only serves to deepen their bonds.
Before I could ask anymore questions one of the group leaders sang a theatrical line in an operatic voice while clicking her fingers and then nodded at us that we should repeat. Because it was so spur of the moment it caught me off guard and before I could even think- I was doing opera, as were the others. I think it was the sheer surprise of hearing someone in real life singing opera-style right in front of me that caused my brain to short circuit and my mouth to just start singing. It was amazing. (I wasn’t amazing – but at least my voice was blended with the others so it wasn’t so noticeable). We all got right into it, marching about, plucking a rose from the sky and pulling it down as though it was still attached to something up there, while singing “Tor-eee-a dooooorrr, she wants your looooove.” – a line from the famous opera called Carmen (we did a short version of this opera during our session – it’s basically about this really gorgeous woman that every man falls in love with, she causes loads of trouble and then dies). I played the matador and stood in the middle of a circle holding an imaginary cloak while the others marched around me singing their hearts out. I haven’t smiled or laughed that much in ages.
It was interesting watching the general library goers and council staff walking past the door, peering in at us and then carrying on with a confused look on their face. Some of them kept walking past as if they were doing errands but really they wished they were in with us I think. I was kind of glad to have my back to the door all the same. The point of the meeting room door being left open was to show members of the public that you don’t have to be intimidated by the rule of silence that usually shrouds a library. There can be a bit of both. And also that everyone is encouraged to try singing opera. You don’t have to be posh or cultured.
The voices of the members of the Streetwise Opera made the hairs on my arms stand on end and left me speechless at times. It was because their voices were so opera-ish and amazing, and that they were so relaxed about singing from their heart that we were able to just go with it too.
So, to end this story – I’m so glad I went along to this workshop. It opened my mind massively and it was the best start to my birthday celebrations. Me and Linz will be going along to their next event at Middlesbrough Central Library on Friday 13th June – 7-8pm (joining in is optional) which says a lot considering we were both so unsure to start off with. Even if you don’t fancy getting involved in the actual singing, I’d highly recommend you try and watch them perform sometime.
Check out their website here: http://www.streetwiseopera.org/workshops/middlesbrough