From the streets to the stage with Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen

Streetwise Opera and choral group The Sixteen say there "won't be a dry eye in the place" when they perform The Passion this weekend

Easter approaches, and one of the highlights at this time of year is performances of Bach’s compositions about the last days of Jesus, The Passion, as narrated by the gospels of St John and St Matthew.

This year, a spectacular and very special one will be the combination of Britain’s best-loved choral group The Sixteen collaborating with homeless members of Streetwise Opera, which works with homeless and marginalised people to give them confidence and skills to move forward with their lives.

Acclaimed film-maker Penny Woolcock directs, and a new Resurrection finale has been composed by Sir James MacMillan in collaboration with the Streetwise performers, using their words for the libretto. Backed by Manchester’s HOME theatre venue, it promises to be an extraordinary site-specific event at Campfield Market, Manchester. Here, Harry Christophers, founder of The Sixteen, and Matt Peacock, founder of Streetwise Opera, tell The Big Issue about their journey to The Passion 2016.

The Big Issue: Where did the idea originate for Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen to work together?

Harry Christophers: For some time we have been contemplating collaborating with Streetwise. Our respective CEOs, Marie-Sophie Willis [The Sixteen] and Matthew Peacock [Steetwise Opera] have known each other for years and some of our singers have performed in Streetwise productions in the past. Like so many things, we were throwing around possible ideas and finally landed on one of the greatest works of all time.

TBI: What attracted you to the project?

HC: We are constantly looking for new ventures and just felt that this was the perfect time to combine forces. We have so many singers in The Sixteen eager to be involved in worthwhile causes and give something back to society in general. The amazing thing about Streetwise is that we are all part of a community effort – there are no stars, we are all intent on putting on a show that is full of meaning and where everyone single person involved is totally committed. The reward is immense – we are learning so much.

We are all intent on putting on a show that is full of meaning and where everyone single person involved is totally committed

TBI: Is Bach’s St Matthew Passion difficult for singers to perform? Is that made harder by it being site-specific in Campfield Market – what were the greatest challenges in performing an immersive fully-staged opera in an old Victorian market?

HC: Of course Bach is very difficult, yes he is challenging but he is ultimately rewarding. For Streetwise perfomers to sing Bach’s lines, be it the chorales or the individual roles of Jesus and other characters, is in short amazing. Each performer really feels the lines they are singing – with Penny Woolcock’s tireless stage direction, they really believe in the role they are acting. We have been rehearsing in the Booth Centre which is compact compared to the big space of Campfield Market. It’s going to be a challenge and we have a week to surmount those challenges. But when the stage is set, the projection screens are up and the lighting rigged, we will master it. Everybody is excited and I stress everybody. There is no hierarchy here!

TBI: Sir James MacMillan has worked with Streetwise Opera singers to compose the new Resurrection finale – what is that going to be like?

HC: Incredible!! The lyrics for this final Resurrection Chorus are by Streetwise performers themselves – to have had them set to music by James is simply amazing for them. Every time we sing it you can feel the emotion, the pride and dignity. I guarantee there will not be a dry eye in the place, such is the power of this finale.

TBI: Do you have any plans to relax and roll an egg on Easter Sunday, or will you be listening to music or a choir somewhere?

HC: I’ll be travelling home to Kent from Manchester and then will set about cooking a late lunch for as many of the family that are around. And then out for a walk if the weather is good and maybe a pint or two at the local!

DID YOU KNOW…

Vendors buy magazines for £1.25 and sell them for £2.50. They are working and need your custom.

TBI: Is there something special about Easter time / spring time and music? Is there something more to it than the religious holiday?

HC: The greatest sacred music is written for Easter – the whole period of Lent to Easter Day. The penitential texts bring out the best in composers from Palestrina and Victoria to Buxtehude and Bach through to Poulenc and MacMillan. Suffering is something the whole world reads about daily; in music we can get solace through these powerful works – music is for everyone and music can give us so many rewards through difficult times. It ultimately gives us great hope.

TBIThe Sixteen embark imminently on the 2016 Choral Pilgrimage – how has it been juggling The Passion with preparation for the tour? How has it compared in the style of singing/scale of the production in Manchester, and the complexity of setting up such a big tour to all these wonderful churches? (Or are you an old hand at it now!?)

HC: Well our office works so hard to make all these different projects happen smoothly. We just go where we are told to!!! But seriously, we love the variety – one minute performing with Streetwise, casting aside our concert gear to act on stage, the next minute on stage in the intimacy of the Wigmore Hall performing Purcell with our orchestra, then embarking on the year long Choral Pilgrimage tour of over 30 concerts. We start in Cambridge and St Albans and then go to venues as far afield at St David’s in Wales, Truro, Rochester, Durham, Lancaster, Hull, Edinburgh and Southwell – we attempt to cover the country. It’s a great life – we meet so many wonderful people and the thought that we can bring such happiness to so many through our music is truly humbling.

Parts of our lives that increase well-being like the arts and sports are what make us whole and human

TBI: How did Penny Woolcock come on board? What has it been like working with her?

Matt Peacock: I first saw Penny give a Q&A after the first screening of her documentary ‘On the Streets’. She talked about homelessness not being just about housing. That struck a chord with me and it’s a phrase I’ve ‘borrowed’ ever since! We all have needs that are not just about the practical – parts of our lives that increase well-being like the arts and sports are what make us whole and human. I then found out that Penny directed operas so it felt like working with her was meant to be! What has been wonderful is she combines such care and kindness for our performers with an uncompromising view that we can all put on a great production. That belief rubs off on our performers and it gives them permission to believe in themselves.

TBI: Was it daunting for Streetwise Opera to be involved in writing a significant new piece like this? How did Sir James find working with them?

MP: I think many things in life are more daunting in theory than in practise. It’s partly why we work in opera – it’s something unfamiliar to most of the group but we see time and time again that if you try something that is new and a little daunting, it opens up other possibilities to you. For many of our performers these small victories lead to much bigger ones in their lives. So once you have an appetite to be bold and risk-taking, it often gives you confidence to be even more ambitious. It certainly gave me the confidence to ask perhaps one of the most celebrated living composers, Sir James MacMillan to write a piece for Streetwise. He said yes straight away and threw himself into the project. He wrote the finale to our opera, working with our Manchester performers who wrote the text for his piece. It’s pretty powerful and moving – anyone coming is advised to bring some tissues!

TBI: It must have been exciting for Streetwise’s singers to work with a choir as experienced as The Sixteen – what have they [i.e. Streetwise Opera singers] told you they’ve got out of it? What does singing as a choir in a project such as this do for people who are marginalised?

MP: I always remember John Bird saying that he thought homeless people should get a Rolls Royce experience. That is what we try to achieve in music. What I love about putting on shows with very mixed groups is that the benefits aren’t one way – the Sixteen and Streetwise singers are helping each other. I heard a lovely conversation between Matt Reid from Streetwise and Kirsty Hopkins from the Sixteen in rehearsal – Matt said that he was grateful that the Sixteen were here since it would make Streetwise sound better; Kirsty replied saying that the Streetwise performers were teaching the Sixteen how to act and be in an opera so they were helping each other.

The Passion, Campfield Market, Manchester M3, March 25-26

The Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage starts on April 8 in Cambridge and then in venues across the UK