Streetwise Opera: A year online

Over the last 19 years we’ve seen how singing and creativity can inspire and empower people who are recovering from homelessness, as they rebuild their self-esteem, boost their wellbeing and overcome social isolation.

We know that for many participants our weekly workshops, delivered before the pandemic at homeless centres and arts venues in five regions across England, have been a lifeline.

That’s why on the evening of 23 March 2020, as we watched the Prime Minister tell the country “you must stay at home”, we knew we had to get to work on a digital programme right away. And we did: three days later, we launched our first online project.

Streetwise Sessions are a singalong livestream via Facebook and YouTube, led by the same teaching artists who were delivering our in-person workshops before the pandemic.

In these sessions, we’ve explored operas by Mozart, Rossini, Puccini, Verdi, Britten, Bizet and others, as well as musical theatre pieces by Bernstein, Gershwin, Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein.

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Streetwise Sessions with Nottingham vocal leader Tim Lole

We knew we would not be able to do any proper group singing on Zoom, but we started to use that platform to come together after livestreams, to discuss the new music we were learning and provide a social experience to participants.

These Digital Tea Breaks would set the foundation for new projects that might not always be centred around singing, allowing Streetwise performers to explore various forms of creativity.

We began our online programme with five Streetwise Sessions and Digital Tea Breaks every week, and as we’ve devised new projects, the frequency of these sessions has varied.

The first of these new projects, in June, was The Linden Tree: a video of the most popular song from Franz Schubert’s Winterreise cycle.

This was a great opportunity to create a digital performance with baritone Roderick Williams, pianist Christopher Glynn, the Brodsky Quartet and singers from Genesis Sixteen.

Our production After Winter, a reimagining of Schubert’s Winter Journey, had been scheduled for the summer of 2020 and had to be cancelled because of the pandemic. So it gave us great satisfaction to work with this brilliant group of artists in a digital project.

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The Linden Tree with Streetwise Opera, Roderick Williams, Christopher Glynn, Brodsly Quarter and Genesis Sixteen

In July, our Digital Tea Breaks evolved into Creative Sessions that allowed Streetwise performers to generate content for other projects like Postcards From Summer, a theme we explored during Streetwise Sessions.

With poems, drawings, paintings, photography and videos produced by participants in those sessions, we launched the website A Gallery For All, which allows anyone who’s been homeless to share their art.

A Gallery For All includes creative work produced by Streetwise participants

Inspired by the entries in the online gallery, director Emma Bernard put together a story for our next digital project, Eight ChaptersDuring September and October, Streetwise performers worked with eight composers to co-create the lyrics and music for The Deer: A Story in 8 Chapters. This mini-opera focusses on a doe that finds the strength and courage to reinvent herself after an accident.

The project allowed Streetwise participants to work with composers Charlotte HardingDominic HarlanJessie Maryon DaviesJohn BarberMichael Henry, Pete Letanka, Ben See and Esmeralda Conde Ruiz.

Singers from The Sixteen, the fantastic classical ensemble that collaborated with Streetwise Opera in our 2016 production The Passion, kindly recorded a playthrough of this new mini-opera. Here is Chapter 5.

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The Deer: A Story in 8 Chapters co-created by Streetwise Opera and eight composers, and performed by members of The Sixteen

In October we launched Culture Club, a digital project that brings together Streetwise performers to explore the performing arts. Every week, they meet artists like the poet Mr Gee, screenwriter Rebekah Harrison, composer Nigel Osborne and comedian Mrs Barbara Nice, to discuss how they can tap into their own creativity.

Also in October, our Creative Sessions officially became the A Gallery For All sessions. This project encourages Streetwise performers to create and publish art in the online gallery. Additionally, we invite artists who share advice and set creative challenges for participants. For example, during the last two weeks of March, professional photographer Sam Reed has shared exercises and tips on how to capture better images.

During November and December we delivered Unseen, a project that aimed to shine a light on black or female composers who have been ignored by those in power, visual pieces that are hidden under multiple layers of significance, and other creative work that has yet to be discovered.

Streetwise participants created an astounding video-performance working with a dream-team of artists from different disciplines: soprano Abigail Kelly, dramaturg Elayce Ismail, guitarist Jack Ross, composer John Barber, vocal leader Jonathan Ainscough, video and projection designer Nina Dunn and designer Rhiannon Newman Brown.

This project includes artwork created by clients of Women’s Direct Access in Manchester, produced during workshops with interference-art.

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Unseen aimed to shine a light on art that has been ignored by those in power

To end 2020, Streetwise performers created an advent calendar and recorded a Christmas tune to thank our supporters.

And from early January we got back to work, with a project co-produced with award-winning company Shobana Jeyasingh Dance. In This Place explores how singing and movement come together on stage to create more powerful and expressive opera.

The video performance, that includes singing and dancing from Streetwise participants and students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, is in the final stages of production and will be premiered soon.

In February we started to deliver We’re All Ears, a weekly pastoral care session that provides Streetwise participants with a safe space to share their feelings and thoughts.

During March, we have been working on The Deer Rising, a performance of Chapter 5 of The Deer, with participants from each region working once again with their local vocal leaders. This piece will be recorded remotely and will be used as the soundtrack for an animated film produced by students from Teesside University.

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"These sessions have been a godsend. They've brought the different Streetwise regions together and we’ve made stronger friendships over the last year."

Bridgette Foley

Newcastle participant

"It's been amazing to have Streetwise Opera during this insane lockdown as there has truly been no other entity that I can think of that has really instilled in all of us that we are creative people worthy of expressing ourselves in the most eclectic way regardless of our troubles."

Ruben Whitter

Nottingham participant

"I loved the interaction and being able to volunteer to demonstrate live what we had learnt during the session. I've enjoyed learning how to record myself singing and dancing, as well as new camera techniques."

Martin Ware

Manchester participant

"The support we received throughout this last year has been sanity for me. When we were apprehensive about this virus we were supported, cheered by the leaders with music and projects. Encouraged to step out of our comfort zones in filming ourselves and recording our voices."

Denise Allison

London performer

"The digital projects have not only kept me sane. But they have also been a gateway to learn about different artists and performance styles."

Jamie Sample

Teesside performer

"With the ingenuity and determination of the wonderful Streetwise team and the patience, persistence and spirit of the amazing performers and participants, the sessions have continued."

Rob Gildon

London leader

"The online sessions have been important to maintain some level of normality during these unprecedented times. They have provided performers with consistently challenging and greatly rewarding projects, in which they can actually see themselves in the finished piece."

Clarence Allen

London support worker

"I've learned a lot about online delivery, a little about technology and most of all, I've learned to appreciate more than ever, the benefits of live music workshops."

Tim Lole

Nottingham leader

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