At first sight you might think that Streetwise Opera is one of those governmental social experiments of the early noughties in which art gets harnessed to do something it was never intended for, and as a practice it was much derided as “instrumentalism” and seen as en excuse for subsidising the arts when it shouldn’t need excuses. You would be wrong. Although it was created in that era, Streetwise is not that. It might have been born in the Victoria night shelter, and it might have worked with over 3,000 homeless people in its first ten years, but what they make is art and it’s breaking new ground, too.
“What we set out to do is to be taken seriously as an opera company,” its founder Matt Peacock told me. “It’s not a kind of floaty ambition we have because we want to be respected, it’s because fundamentally if people feel sorry for our performers it isn’t sustainable. But if you focus on the art so much more can happen – thinking of homeless people in a show didn’t get five stars in The Times”. And they do get five-star reviews in national papers – there was even a four-star notice in the New York Times.
They work with professionals, these homeless ones, and those singers, musicians and composers happily work with them. Streetwise performances are always a sell-out.
So this is not about welfare, it’s about art and of what art is capable, whoever you are and whatever your circumstances. You might see the 500 homeless people Peacock works with each year are the lucky ones, because they’ve been given a chance those more fortunate in other ways don’t get.
Streetwise is marking its tenth birthday by commissioning a new opera from Gavin Bryars – and you can’t get less instrumentalist than that – which develops a trend they have started by mixing live performance with film. This commission involves a commitment of £200,000 for the movie and £100,000 for the stagework. There’s nothing amateur about the ambition – you can see it in all its mixed media glory at the BFI Southbank in April. It is a national portfolio client of the arts council, gets some subsidy from local authorities and raises funds from trusts and foundations as well as sponsors and through schemes such as Easyfundraising that allow you to donate while you shop.
And while fundraising has been getting harder, with subsidy shrinking, Streetwise has not reduced its ambition, and for Peacock an even more challenging year ahead means maintaining momentum, not reducing the aspiration. “At times like this there is a temptation for arts organisations to shrink into their shells a bit and hope they come out of the other side with not too much damage caused,” Peacock said.
“But this is about art, not money, and you have to do it to the best of your ability because there’s no other way. It’s hard and it’s going to get harder, but that’s the time to get really creative.”