Ask people where opera happens, and they’ll probably picture the grand theatre houses of Europe, the kind with private boxes and gilded ceilings.
But for the last two-and-a-half years, in a remarkable collaboration, opera has been coming to the Kettle on Burrard Building—a residence for people at risk of homelessness or who live with mental-health challenges. Vancouver Opera teaching artists have been hosting regular singing and writing sessions there, in a project that will soon culminate in the premiere of Requiem for a Lost Girl.
As Kettle Society director Coreen Douglas describes the project, “It’s worlds colliding.” And through that collision, everyone involved—from opera professionals to Kettle residents who have lived on the streets—hopes change can result and barriers can come down.
Taking part in Requiem’s opera chorus and contributing to its creation has given some of our city’s most stigmatized people a voice. “I used heroin for 30 years. This choir has changed my life,” Kettle resident Ruth Witt tells the Straight with emotion at the Burrard residence. “I look at myself in a new way. It makes us feel different about ourselves.”
Invited by VO to watch an intimate rehearsal of Eugene Onegin the day before, she says she just kept thinking: “I used to sleep under the bridge and now I’m watching an opera.”
Requiem for a Lost Girl is written and directed by Onalea Gilbertson and composed and conducted by Marcel Bergmann, with writing and additional music by the Kettle Choir and Writers Guild. It will be performed by soloists from the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artist Program, and members of the Vancouver Opera Chorus, the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, and the Kettle Choir and Writers Guild. Amid the choir are mental-health support workers who ended up joining the choir. “It feels like the whole family of the Kettle coming together in this great experiment,” Douglas enthuses.
Requiem is based on the true story of a friend Gilbertson lost on the street when the girl was just 15. “One of the things that really upset me as a teenager was the stigma around it,” she says, explaining that her friend’s death was dismissed in the media because of her “high-risk lifestyle”. “Even at a young age I asked, ‘Why are we making some people more important than other people?’”
The resulting work, she says, plays out like an oratorio memorializing a homeless girl who has been killed, with three characters—her mother, her friend, and the man who murdered her—and a chorus of people she may have known. There is a set song cycle that Bergmann and Gilbertson have created, and then, within the chorus, Kettle members contribute songs or readings that draw from their own experiences, too.
“It’s an avenue for self-expression. Operas are all about tragedy, and we’ve got homelessness, addiction—they’re all tragedies,” says resident Geof Milson, who lived on the streets and battled addiction for seven years before cleaning up. “This is an avenue to expand my writing and my music with really quality people in the entertainment business.”
The former busker said though no one in the group—some of whom come from Kettle’s seven other outposts across the city—thought they could sing opera before joining the choir, they’ve now flourished. “I’ve been there pretty much from the beginning and the group was quite small and the voices were squeaky and people were afraid to be heard,” Milson recalls. “But within a few months an awesome bellowing could be heard.” For his part, Milson has written an original song that will be performed in Requiem.
Even for Kettle staff, the experience has been transformative: “When we’d come in for those meeting sessions and take off those hats, we were just the same as anyone else,” says Kettle on Burrard manager Damien Murphy.
Gilbertson says Requiem’s creation process has been as important as the show that will premiere as part of the Vancouver Opera Festival. “Music and singing are things that bring us together and help us feel a sense of purpose,” she says.
Throughout the process, Douglas has been struck by one strong factor that the Kettle and VO have in common. “When she first came to me with the project, [VO director of community and engagement] Colleen Maybin said opera audiences are sometimes stigmatized as not able or willing to talk about some of the difficult conversations in society. And our clients feel ostracized. So it’s two stigmatized communities coming together.”
The project has been so successful that an Indiegogo campaign has now been launched to continue the legacy—so that people like Witt and Milson will have choir practice for years to come. The ultimate goal is to teach Kettle staff and volunteers how to run the program.
The Requiem project reflects a larger global movement to improve lives through the arts, as evidenced by initiatives like London’s Streetwise Opera, which has reported dramatic positive outcomes for participants. And it’s a sign that the art form can be powerful far outside the marble corridors of elegant opera houses.
For her part, Witt hopes the project can continue after Requiem for a Lost Girl closes. “I’ve been feeling sad because it’s almost over,” she says. “I’ve never met such beautiful, wonderful people.”
Requiem for a Lost Girl takes place next Friday and Sunday (May 4 and 6) at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, as part of the Vancouver Opera Festival, in partnership with the Kettle Society and SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs.