The power of art

Last night, Streetwise Opera replayed the film of their 2016 production, The Passion, on YouTube, for a world in the grip of a pandemic. I first saw it broadcast on BBC television on Easter Sunday in 2016. It was a stunning, unforgettable experience, and I have often spoken about it since: it was one of the projects included in A Restless Art. I’d seen several Streetwise productions, in Nottingham and Manchester, and some of the films they’d made, but this was something else. The core of the production is an abridgement of J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion, with the addition of hymns and a final ‘Resurrection Chorus’ composed by James McMillan on a text by members of Streetwise Opera. It was performed by them with The Sixteen, in a promenade style production at Campfield market in Manchester.

It shouldn’t work, according to all the rules that govern the worlds of music and art. How can you expect untrained singers, people with lived experience of homelessness, to perform alongside one of the world’s finest choirs? The contrast in the quality of the singing is obvious. The non-professional singers of Streetwise opera do not sing like people who have trained and performed for 30 or 40 years. But they sing with grace and character, and bring another quality to their performance. They took many roles, but most strikingly the figure of Jesus was played by eight different Streetwise members, who passed the blue shawl that designated the Christ to one another as the terrible story unfolded. They draw on deep wells of life experience and brought extraordinary presence to their performance. Often the silent, still centre of a baying crowd, the singers played Jesus with an authority it’s hard to imagine in a more seasoned performer for whom this is only the next role.

The fragility of their voices brought home the horror of a sacrifice in which the most vulnerable were put to death by an unholy alliance of local and foreign powers. It is unbearably moving, and I was often watching through tears. This great piece of classical music was returned to its true meaning as a community’s expression of religious belief. But it was not limited to that. The performance invited new, secular meanings too, about innocence, weakness and the abuse of power. And last night, watching it again in the darkness of a pandemic, when those with homes are in lockdown and those without are – where? – when the numbers of the dead rise at each government briefing, and we live in fear and in hope, the words of the final chorus took on fresh resonance:

We have all become scavengers, Death is everywhere, Hello, hello, is anybody there? A stranger gave me water, I gave another food, I hear someone singing, Together we’re singing, Together we’re singing, Together we’re singing, We’ll build a better place, On the one that’s been destroyed, And the rain still falls…

‘Resurrection Chorus;, Streetwise Opera and James MacMillan

I have made and seen a great deal of community art over the decades, but nothing more powerful, moving or impressive than The Passion. This is one clear path to the renewal of opera as an art form for a community, compelling and capable of meeting its need to make sense of experience. And I’m sure that Bach would understand this – and value it – more than many white tie concert hall performances of his cantatas.

Finally, here’s something that other community productions might consider: every Streetwise performer is credited with their full name at the end, alongside the better known names of the professional artists and crew. So often, I see non-professional artists reduced to first names, as if they were children. Credits are credits – even if someone chooses the protection of a stage name – and everyone who contributes to a work is entitled to the same dignity.

Photos by Graeme Cooper, Matt Webb, Alan Kerr courtesy Streetwise Opera


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