Streetwise Opera is an award-winning UK registered charity that uses music to help people make positive changes in their lives. They work with people who have experienced homelessness as well as with other vulnerable members of the community. Streetwise Opera run singing and drama workshop programmes across England, stage critically-acclaimed operas starring homeless people, and manage an international arts and homelessness programme.
People benefit from the work of Streetwise Opera in many ways as they progress through the homelessness “journey”. Involvement with Streetwise opera can be the first rung on a ladder of self-confidence for people who are or have been homeless and are vulnerable or isolated. Through working in a safe and supportive group and participating in opera, an art form that many perceive as elitist, people’s beliefs about their capabilities are fundamentally challenged and changed.
By developing new skills, meeting people, being creative and simply having fun, people feel better about themselves and are more able to take on life’s other challenges, whether that means engaging with services, living independently, getting involved with community life, reconnecting with family, or gaining a tenancy.
Streetwise Opera measure the impact of their work using a range of monitoring methods, including surveys and focus groups and collecting information from participants, partner centres and staff.
In 2015-16, Streetwise Opera worked with 725 performers, reached 150,000 audience members, ran 451 workshops in 6 UK cities (Manchester, Middlesbrough, London, Newcastle/ Gateshead, Nottingham and Cardiff). They also staged 36 performances and created 3 new productions.
Streetwise Opera's core values are: creativity, ambition, generosity, collaboration, always learning, fun, and staying true. Their workshops are about improving wellbeing and increasing social inclusion for some of the England’s most vulnerable and socially excluded people.
"Our workshops are about providing a safe, regular, inclusive and sociable space where people can be creative, try new things and enjoy themselves. We treat participants as artists and seek artistic excellence in all of our projects. We're also committed to evaluating and developing our work.
Since 2011, we have also been working with Homeless Link’s arts and homelessness programme 'Get Creative: arts for all’ to deliver arts training to the homelessness sector in England. Through this, we have identified a common thread of core values running through most homeless arts projects, even when they differ widely in approach, delivery and content. "
Interview: Susie Gorgeous,
Why was Streetwise Opera founded?
Streetwise Opera was founded by Matt Peacock who was a support worker at The Passage, a night shelter in Victoria. In 2000 someone at the shelter read out a newspaper quoting a politician who said that “the homeless are the people you step over after coming out of the opera”. Matt happened to be a singer and opera critic as well as a support worker and so he decided to organise an opera with the homeless as performers at the Royal Opera House and it was a great success.
What work does Streetwise Opera do with homeless people?
Streetwise Opera runs workshops, theatre trips and performances in five regions (Nottingham, Newcastle/Gateshead, Manchester, Middlesbrough and London). We have identical programmes in all five. We have Explore workshops in an arts centre in each city and then Drop-in workshops in a homeless centre. For instance in Manchester we work with the Booth Centre for the Drop-in workshops and with Opera North for the Explore Workshops.
We have twelve week terms for the Explore workshops, and the performers learn the opera and do a range of other things throughout term, but in the Drop-in workshops things change more quickly and it’s much easier for people to come in when they’d like to – the Drop-in workshops run year-round.
What is the impact of the workshops?
There are so many impacts and for some people, some things are bigger achievements than for others. People learn about music, and form meaningful relationships and friendships. Some people start off very shy and find it hard to interact but over the course of a few workshops they become much more confident and find interactions within the workshop and in general more manageable. The impact is very individual. It leads people to become more confident and capable and it would be nice if we could say it leads them to get a job but that’s not how life works unfortunately. We do get results like reduced drug and alcohol intake though.
What led you to becoming involved with Streetwise Opera?
It’s quite an unglamorous story really. I saw an ad in the Guardian and applied. I had been working in the field of using the arts for social change for five years before, working with refugee children. I used to work in theatre but wanted a career change to have more a positive focus and so I did an MA in Arts Management. I’ve been working with Streetwise Opera for ten years and have been their Co-Executive director for nine months. As an organisation, we are celebrating our fifteenth birthday this year.
If we had the Gorgeous Policy on Homelessness, what would be the first thing you’d change?
Social and affordable housing. It’s not a very glamorous answer but we have a huge problem in this country and especially in the capital. It’s not just a problem for the homeless. A lot of working people who have places to live in are being pushed out of London because of the lack of affordable housing and it makes my blood boil.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
I’m an early riser. I love working for this organisation and I find it really motivating. When you see people come to these workshops and leave their pressures at the door – and some of them will have a number of really serious pressures to deal with – it’s something very inspiring in itself and it makes me feel very privileged to be working with such people.