Born into homelessness, Phillippa Marlowe-Hunt, 42, spent most of her life as a young adult sofa surfing. Next week, 20 years after her last good night’s sleep, she will sing opera to hundreds of people at London’s Southbank Centre.
Phillippa is one of around 100 people experiencing homelessness who will perform alongside the BBC Concert Orchestra and Sixteen Choir as part of Streetwise Opera’s Re:sound programme.
Three casts, made up of people from Nottingham, Manchester and London, will take to the stage at major venues in their respective cities before coming together for a final performance at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.
Each show will feature nine micro-operas co-written by formerly homeless locals and will feature stories about the regions concerned relating to Manchester bees, mushy peas and environmental protests in London.
The performances take place against an animated backdrop produced by the 1927 theater company and designed in workshops with participants from Streetwise Opera.
The initiative, launched by Streetwise Opera, aims to inspire and empower formerly homeless people to rebuild their lives and change society’s perception of homelessness.
“It’s very common for someone who’s homeless to lose their self-esteem because they’re being treated horribly,” says Streetwise Opera’s Rey Trombetta. “A lot of people walk the streets and won’t even get involved with a homeless man and then suddenly they see him on the Southbank Center stage; We hope it changes their perception of the homeless and shows that they can help build a more beautiful world.”
Working with world-class musicians and conductors in the field, the organization seeks to reinvent traditional repertoire in ways that make the medium more diverse and inclusive.
“A lot of people, in this country at least, think opera isn’t for them; it’s for the elite, the rich, the people who speak multiple languages,” Rey said.
“If people who are homeless or living in poverty can engage with opera and adopt it, it sends a very powerful message about what opera can be. Anyone who wants to own it can, as long as they have the right support,” he said.
Since finding Streetwise Opera six years ago through a recovery college, Phillippa has found a supportive network of like-minded people and has noticed an improvement in her confidence and self-esteem.
“People have always told me I can’t sing, but this is where I finally find my voice,” she said. “Performing with Streetwise makes you feel like someone, you get noticed.”
Brian Ward, 64, has been singing with the group for 11 years and said the performing opportunities have 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 malnutrition. Having no operatic experience, he was initially reluctant to engage, but soon found he was “getting better and better”.
“I’m very happy to be part of the group,” he said. “It’s a great experience singing with people I’ve never met before and learning songs about the city I come from. And you feel part of something, there are people here you can trust.”
He said his newfound hobby also helped eliminate his depression and anxiety. “I’m so proud of what I’m doing with the group, 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 perspective of homeless people.
Streetwise Opera has held regular singing and creative workshops in London, Manchester and Nottingham since 2002. As well as sessions taking place in homeless shelters and arts centres, the organization has hosted a number of online and stage productions, including at the Royal Opera House.
In 2020-21, the organization conducted 1,341 activities for 226 people who had previously lived on the streets.