After being born homeless, Phillippa Marlowe-Hunt, 42, went on to spend most of her life couch surfing as a young adult. Next week, 20 years after her last night on the streets, she will sing an opera for hundreds of people at London’s Southbank Centre.
Phillippa is one of around 100 people with experience of homelessness who will perform alongside the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Sixteen Choir as part of Streetwise Opera’s Re:sound programme.
Three actors, made up of people from Nottingham, Manchester and London, will take to the stage in the main venues of their respective cities before reuniting for a final performance at the Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre.
Each show will contain nine micro-operas, co-written by locals who were previously homeless, and will feature stories from the regions in question, with references to bees in Manchester, peas and environmental protests in London. .
The performances will take place in front of an animated set made by the theater company 1927, which was designed during workshops with the participants of Streetwise Opera.
The initiative, introduced by Streetwise Opera, aims to inspire and empower formerly homeless people as they rebuild their lives and change the way homelessness is perceived in society.
“It’s very common that when someone is homeless, they lose their self-esteem because they’re treated horribly,” says Rey Trombetta of Streetwise Opera. “A lot of people are walking down the streets and don’t even engage with a homeless person, then suddenly they see him on the stage at the Southbank Centre; we hope it will change their perception of homeless people and show that they can help build a more beautiful world.
By collaborating with world-class musicians and conductors in the field, the organization aims to reinvent traditional repertoire in a way that makes the medium more diverse and inclusive.
“At least in this country, a lot of people think opera is not for them; it’s for the elite, the wealthy, people who speak multiple languages,” Rey said.
“If people who are homeless or living in poverty can engage with opera and make it their own, it sends a very powerful message about what opera can be. Anyone who wants to own it can, as long as they has the right support,” he said.
Since finding Streetwise Opera in recovery college six years ago, Phillippa has found a support network of like-minded people and has noticed improvements in her confidence and self-esteem.
“People always told me I couldn’t sing, but here I finally find my voice,” she said. “Playing with Streetwise makes you feel like someone, you get noticed.”
Brian Ward, 64, has now sung with the band for 11 years and said the opportunities to perform had made him a “better person”.
He spent the better part of 10 years between a cardboard box in a London garage and a hospital due to lack of nutrition. Without any previous opera experience, he was initially shy about getting involved, but soon found himself “better and better all the time”.
“I’m very happy to be part of the group,” he said. “It’s a great experience to sing with other people I’ve never met and to learn songs about the city where I come from. And you feel like you’re part of something, there’s people here that you can trust.
He said his new hobby also helped eradicate his depression and anxiety.
“I’m so proud of what I’m doing with the band, it’s changed my life forever.”
Re:sound is a year-long festival that encourages artists and audiences to rediscover the cities they live in, through the perspectives of homeless people.
Streetwise Opera has held regular singing and creative workshops in London, Manchester and Nottingham since 2002. Alongside the sessions, which take place in homeless shelters and arts centres, the organization has run a series of online productions and on stage, notably at the Royal Opera Lodge.
In 2020-2021, the organization offered 1,341 activities to 226 people who previously lived on the streets.