I was lucky enough the join the Streetwise team a few weeks ago, alongside Martin Constantine our new Artistic Director. On a bitterly cold day in January, we headed up to Nottingham to join our weekly Streetwise session; a couple of weeks later we travelled to Manchester for the same purpose, albeit in slightly warmer conditions.
I’m not someone who thrives in big groups – I get awkward and can easily find myself hovering on the outskirts, not sure of what to do. Everyone had told me how open and welcoming our Streetwise sessions are, but you really have to experience it to believe it. Within moments of arriving at the Nottingham Playhouse, numerous performers had introduced themselves, told me what the sessions meant to them and what they’d been working on over the past few months. There were banter and in-jokes between the group that I somehow felt included in, even though I’d just arrived.
I’ve sung in choirs of various sizes throughout most of my life, but it never ceases to amaze me what power there is in people raising their voices together. In Nottingham, we started by working on a beautiful and uplifting piece called A Little Bit of Love, with the higher and lower voices harmonising to create a strong, rich sound. (If you haven’t heard it before, you should – here’s a version you can listen to you on YouTube). Then we were into the main project for this term – an unpacking and reimagining of Carmen. We learned and sang Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum from Carmen Jones (another cracker, which you can listen to here) – I was taken back to my childhood and a battered CD of the Carmen Jones music that my dad had introduced me too. That’s the thing about singing – suddenly, without warning, you’re transported somewhere else.
Another classic opera was featured in our visit to the Manchester session – this time, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. We were lucky enough to have some visitors to the group from the Royal Northern College of Music who treated us to an excerpt from the very start of the opera. The scene features Susanna and Figaro preparing for the titular marriage, with Susanna trying on her wedding bonnet and Figaro working out the dimensions of the bridal bed. There’s nothing quite like being in close proximity to a soprano hitting the high notes, and, as Jonathan the session leader reminded us, it’s pleasing to note that one Mozart’s best-loved and most performed operas opens with a bloke measuring up for some furniture.
One of the many brilliant things about our performers is the way they make opera their own and breathe fresh life into old stories. Under the guidance of Sarah, our director this term, the group began to create their own version of Figaro – one where a domineering factory boss oppresses his workers, who in turn find ever more inventive ways to subvert his demands. Their imaginative response reminded me how long lasting and relevant the themes of these operas are, and that reinvention of these classic pieces for the modern world will open up opera to many new audiences.
I always try and get home from work in time to put my 18 month daughter to bed and the last thing I do with her before she goes to sleep is sing her a song. She’ll lay her head down on my shoulder, relax into my arms and listen to my voice. It reminds me that – to steal a phrase from my colleague Elizabeth – music is a universal language. Our response to the voice is immediate and instinctive and brings an intangible connection with those around us – and it is a gift that lies within us all. As I experienced first-hand in Manchester and Nottingham, our performers have been bold enough and generous enough to share their creativity and their voices with each other and with our audiences – I’m inspired by their talent, and am hugely excited by the potential of what we might create over the coming years.