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CLASSICAL Opera from the street; Opera may always struggle to shed its elitist tag, but Streetwise Opera has grassroots appeal. David Whetstone looks forward to its latest production.

Byline: David Whetstone

An extraordinary opera performance promises to be a highlight of the Festival of the North East - and not only because it will feature people who have experienced homelessness.

In a way, this should be the least extraordinary thing about The Answer to Everything.

Over 10 years, Streetwise Opera has won plaudits for productions featuring people, previously down on their luck, whose performing talents it has encouraged.

What makes this new operatic work unusual and exciting is its innovative approach, incorporating live action, film and music by composers living and dead.

"Bringing together lots of different music, new and old, is something we've done throughout our history," says Durham-born Streetwise Opera founder and chief executive Matt Peacock.

"This is our 10th anniversary production so we wanted to celebrate. We have commissioned five composers from Britain, ranging from Gavin Bryars, whose work people will know, to Duncan Ward, who's very much up-andcoming."

Another contributor is Orlando Gough, whose Foghorn Requiem takes place at Souter Lighthouse, South Tyneside, on June 22.

Matt has previously recalled how his annoyance at the flippant remark of a former Government minister - that the homeless were "people you step over when you come out of the opera" - spurred him to create an organisation that could help to give homeless people back their self-respect and portray opera as something for everyone.

Streetwise Opera now has a presence in cities around the country.

In the North East, where it has a long-term partnership with Sage Gateshead, it runs two groups in Newcastle - at the Church of St Silas, Byker Bridge, run with Tyne Housing Association, and at the Cyrenians' Virginia House - and one in Middlesbrough with Hope North East.

There is also a Streetwise Opera choir which meets at the Sage, ensuring, says Matt, that people who come to singing via homelessness can progress with their newfound - or rediscovered - passion once they are back on their feet.

"From the beginning I've always wanted to demonstrate the challenges that people who have experienced homelessness face.

"It's not just about housing. To experience homelessness, something pretty major has had to have happened in someone's life.

"Finding someone a flat is part of the solution but I guess we've always considered ourselves one piece in a jigsaw. What we've concentrated on is instilling pride and confidence so people can move on quicker and better."

The success of Streetwise Opera is encapsulated not just in reviews but also in a remark made by one beneficiary in a promotional film. "Acting and singing just blocks all the past out," says the young woman with feeling.

Matt says he was always determined Streetwise Opera should be taken seriously.

"We decided it needed to be a properly innovative and respected company that was seen to be ambitious. If you're going to embark on something, do it properly.

"That way people who take part will understand that their achievements are proper achievements and they can hold their heads up.

"We have developed as a company that does new commissions. Our first was Will Todd's Whirlwind in 2006 (Todd and Matt were pupils together at Durham School).

What we are now exploring is a mix of film and opera which means we can tour more easily."

The world premiere of The Answer to Everything took place at the British Film Institute in London in April -the first live opera to be premiered in a cinema - and featured film shot in the North East, a professional soprano and 120 Streetwise Opera singers from around the country.

The opera's setting is a fictional conference where an imaginary property developer is extolling the virtues of an indestructible brick that promises to be "the answer to everything" and a solution to the housing crisis.

Audience members become conference delegates and the opera unfolds around them, both on screen and in live action.

In London one national critic referred to the "undeniable beauty" of the piece.

The touring version, with four soloists chosen from Streetwise Opera's North East groups, will get its premiere in the art-deco Classic auditorium of the Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle.

We've on instilling and better { confidence Matt Peacock is delighted the performance is to be part of the Festival of the North East and that the Tyneside is to host it. can move It is, he says, "not only the most exciting cinema in the North East, but widely regarded as leading the way in new innovations in film and performance, the territory we are exploring with our hybrid opera and film show".

Fearing that politicians don't regard support for the arts as a vote winner in this time of austerity, he hopes The Answer to Everything will show the benefits the arts can bring to all in society.

Tickets for the Newcastle performance on June 19 at 6.30pm are PS12 or PS14 (PS10 or PS12 concessions) from the box office: 0845 217 9909 or DURHAM CHOIR COLLABORATION Durham Singers mark the centenary of Benjamin Britten's birth on June 22 with a new choral collaboration.

The choir will be joined by Renaissance, a group of singers directed by award-winning young composer Ben Rowarth, from Hexham.

Blessed Cecilia, featuring solo and a cappella works from the 17th to the 21st Centuries, will show Britten's love for the music of Henry Purcell and his influence on today's composers.

The programme includes Britten's Hymn to Saint Cecilia, Purcell's I Was Glad and Julian Anderson's O Sing Unto the Lord, plus music by Walton and Holst.

Rowarth, a former Hexham Abbey chorister, is a choral scholar at Durham University.

He won the National Centre for Early Music Award in 2012 for his composition Where is Thy God?, which he will direct in the concert at Elvet Methodist Church, Durham.

The concert, supported by the Britten Pears Foundation, starts at 7.30pm. Tickets at the door or from the Gala Theatre, Durham: 0191 332 4041 or CLASSICS IN THE COUNTRY The Alwinton Church Concerts season in Upper Coquetdale features a 3pm concert on June 23 by Northern Sinfonia Ensemble.

It will perform music for wind and strings by Dvorak, one of the great 19th Century composers, two 20th Century giants, Britten and Martinu (Dvorak's compatriot), and also by young composer Dobrinka Tabakova.

The season will reach its climax when baritone Sir Thomas Allen performs on July 13, accompanied by pianist Caroline Dowdle.

The programme will include Schumann's marvellous Dichterliebe (Poet's Love) and a series of English songs.

Buy tickets from Tully's of Rothbury or online via

We've concentrated on instilling pride and and better { confidence so people can move on quicker


Streetwise stars pose at Druridge Bay. (c)Mark Pinder
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 28, 2013
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