The Choir With No Name rehearsal I attend is the first rehearsal after a fundraising concert held at Cadogen Hall, a grand venue associated with classical music in Chelsea, one of the wealthiest parts of London. The first part of the rehearsal is a dissection of the night. The whole event, from the accounts of the choir members, had an atmosphere of ritzy glamour. Mel Giedroyc (formerly a presenter of the BBC’s Great British Bake Off) presented the show and was apparently very nice, albeit cheeky. Sam Chaplin, the choir leader, asks for reflections on the night and a number of people talk about the “confidence boost” the evening gave them. They also mention the fact that grandchildren, partners, and friends were in the audience to see them. One singer laments missing the entry for her solo but is reassured by Chaplin that the band merely vamped before she came in and nailed it.
Choir With No Name has been running choirs for people who are homeless or have experienced homelessness since Marie Benton founded it in 2008. At the time, Benton was working at the homeless accommodation provider St Mungo’s as well as being a part-time choir leader.The choir was initially funded through a mixture of individual donations, performance fees and start up grants from social enterprise funds. They now have branches across the UK in Birmingham, Liverpool, Brighton and London (the one that I visit). Their funding now comes mainly from grants and trusts (including Tetra Pak money from the Julia and Hans Rausing Trust and from Comic Relief) supplemented by a mix of corporate donations, fundraising and tickets sales from their concerts. The evening rehearsal I attend is in an enormous church in Knightsbridge, also one of the wealthiest parts of London, and starts with tea and cake (extremely good, made by a singer) before about two hours of rehearsal. The choir is still acclimatising after an extended break from in-person rehearsals due to covid (the choir bought phones and tablets for choir members so they could join online sessions) and has yet to reinstate the hot meal, made by volunteers, that is usually provided after rehearsals. The singers I talk to repeatedly emphasise the “family” atmosphere of Choir With No Name.
Chaplin leads the choir in a warm up, followed by starting work on a new arrangement of his, Use Somebody, by Kings of Leon. Chaplin breaks down the choir into different voices, a rough SATB, lyric sheets are given out and we sing through it, accompanied by a piano. Even though it is a first run through, Chaplin picks out highly detailed moments of intonation and phrasing for the choir to work on. The sound is powerful with lots of male voices (almost unheard of in amateur choirs) and the song comes together satisfyingly over the course of the rehearsal. I join in and find myself concentrating hard on my entrances and counting the number of repetitions for the final climax; so much so that the end of the rehearsal surprises me after two fast-moving hours. I imagine that if the rehearsal were followed by a meal then it would make a very pleasurable evening. It is a free, fun sociable evening every week without booze and drugs: what’s not to like?
Partly because most of the general public’s interaction with homeless people is seeing rough sleepers in urban areas, and partly due to the unhelpful literalness of the word ‘homeless’, most people associate homelessness only with rough sleeping. It is tempting see homelessness as a simple issue: these people do not have a home, they are homeless, if they had somewhere to live, they would no longer be homeless, and the problem would go away. But it’s not that simple. Firstly, working definitions of homelessness in the UK are significantly more complex than that. According to the government, people can be described as homeless if they are ‘roofless’ (rough sleeping), ‘houseless’ (living in temporary accommodation like a shelter or hostel), living in insecure housing (‘sofa surfing’ or living under threat of short notice eviction) or living in inadequate housing (for example living in caravans on illegal campsites, or in extremely overcrowded accommodation).
Secondly, people who are experiencing, or who have experienced homelessness, have often ended up there due to a complex set of interlocking factors, like mental health problems or drug and alcohol dependencies. They could have aged out of the care system or left the army or simply been evicted from their accommodation because they could not pay the rent. Women on the street are often fleeing violent and abusive relationships. Homelessness makes these underlying problems even harder to fix and simply having somewhere to live does not make them go away. It is also fantastically bad for you: recent ONS statistics show that the mean age of death for homeless men is 32 years lower than the general population at 44 years. It’s even lower for homeless women at just 42 years.
The problem in the UK is huge and getting worse. In fact, by the government’s own assessment, “rough sleeping has been increasing substantially since a low point between 2009 and 2010”. 2010 is when the coalition government was elected and embarked on its disastrous and monstrously destructive policy of austerity. The government’s own assessment is that “by the end of 2021, 227,000 households across Britain were experiencing the worst kind of homelessness”. Although all of these people need adequate accommodation, accommodation on its own will not solve all of their problems. It is possible to have a roof over your head and still be homeless. It’s possible to have your own house or flat, and remain in some senses homeless, if you have little sense of community, purpose or respect. This is what organisations like Choir With No Name and Streetwise Opera aim to foster.
The Streetwise Opera rehearsal I attend takes place in the mid afternoon in a windowless studio in the Southbank Centre. The group is midway through rehearsing Streetwise Monteverdi, a mini opera written by Michael Henry based on Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and L’incoronacione di Poppea by Monteverdi. The material is tricky and Henry’s arrangement is full of spikey rhythmic and metrical surprises. The very nature of operatic musical material means that the group spends the session battling over tiny fragments of music with difficult entries and not particularly instinctive pitches to come in on. There is some dissatisfaction in the air until the end of the session when the director leads the group in a battle scene. The singers leap into the scene with great gusto, looking menacing at the other side of the ‘battle’, stomping and glowering.
Streetwise Opera lacks a little of Choir With No Name’s family atmosphere; the singers are less jokey and lively; the relationship between the leaders and the singers is more formal and has as trained cheeriness. Where the singers at Choir With No Name talk a lot with great warmth about “confidence” the singers at Streetwise talk more about “skills”. (Incidentally these are often the same singers; I meet a significant number of the same people at both rehearsals.) Streetwise is perhaps a more challenging proposition though. In the Choir With No Name rehearsal everyone seemed to know the Kings of Leon song, even if the arrangement was new. Streetwise Monteverdi is a new commission and opera involves movement, acting, sets, costume and much more of an emphasis on solo singing. Like with the choir, the idea of Streetwise is not that participants become professionals working in music but that through developing skills related to performance the participants will develop confidence and sense of self, especially if they are out of the crisis zone of homelessness and attempting to rebuild their lives.
Choral music and opera have very different traditions in Britain. Since Tudor composers had to write a set of post-Reformation liturgical settings in English practically overnight, choral music has been embedded in the musical culture of the country. A network of Anglican choirs brought and still brings young singers in from parish churches to the cathedral choirs, and then on to places like Oxford and Cambridge for further education and professional careers. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the British audience for classical music liked oratorios and massed choir singing of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mendelsohn or Elgar much more than opera. Handel’s Messiah is still consistently performed by professional choirs, but more importantly sung by amateur choral societies across the country that run on an oratorio model. More recently the choir leader Gareth Malone made a series of hugely popular television programmes called The Choir, where he taught choral singing to people who had never experienced it before. He has worked with boys in rough schools, council estates, the wives of military personnel, and celebrities. The premise of the show is that choral singing is for everyone, will build your confidence and has the power to join disparate groups together. For Malone a choir isn’t just a metaphor for togetherness, it literally creates community cohesion. In the series, Malone struggles for a few episodes to get the choir off the ground, and encounters resistance to this idea, but quite soon, the premise that choral singing is for everyone is heartily embraced by the participants – and by the viewer at home. Choir With No Name was started in 2008 in the wake of the first series of The Choir, which aired in 2006.
While choirs and choral singing are the form of vernacular music expression in Britain, opera in the UK is weighed down by class symbolism; opera for most people is nothing more than a cultural symbol of the upper classes. Opera has a very narrow toehold in the British cultural imagination. The two most significant opera houses in the country, the Royal Opera House and English National Opera, were only formed in 1946 and 1931 respectively. They are also both in London. There are very few significant operas written by English composers, hardly anything to rival Dido and Aeneas (1689) and Peter Grimes (1945). The end result is that opera remains an unintegrated, alien culture for the vast majority of British people. Most are vanishingly unlikely to have seen an opera and even more unlikely to have participated in one. Part of what makes Streetwise Opera a tenser and more complex proposition is a sense that opera in the UK needs the Streetwise singers as much as – if not more than – the Streetwise singers need opera. The Royal Opera House between 2018 and 2022 got £24m a year from Arts Council England. The question becomes: if the public doesn’t want to go to the opera, why should they pay for it? Publicly-subsidised opera houses all have the same response to this question: that “opera is for everyone”. If only they could reach different groups of people, people who don’t normally go to the opera, then those people would love it. “Opera is for everyone”; you just don’t know it yet. Implicit in the conjunction of opera and homeless people in the work of Streetwise Opera is the slightly patronising suggestion that if opera can be sung by homeless people then it really must be for everyone.
Complicating matters further, Streetwise wants to borrow some of the cultural and class prestige associated with opera, the very cultural and class prestige opera organisations wish to shake off by working with Streetwise. The organisation was originally created as a response to a famous quote from a Conservative cabinet member Sir George Young (6thBaronet): “The homeless? Aren’t they the people you step over when you come out of the opera?” The idea that opera critic Matt Peacock had was that if homeless people were in an opera it would “challenge the public’s attitude to homelessness and shine a spotlight on their achievements”. This resulted in a production of the The Little Prince at the Royal Opera House. Part of the idea was that the very presence of homeless people within that symbol of upper-class cultural rarefication, the Opera House, would give those people status and make them unstepoverable. Two decades on, Streetwise is now an established arts organisation bringing in over £600,000 a year through grants, donations and ticket sales including £100,580 annually from Arts Council England as a National Portfolio Organisation.
It is hard to know if the audience members who saw The Little Prince had their attitudes towards homeless people changed by the performance. It is also hard to know if opera in general has developed a new set of opera devotees through Streetwise’s work. Although I believe participation is the first step towards appreciation, a number of the singers I talk to admit to me that they do not think they are really doing opera, associating opera exclusively with the trained operatic voice rather than the synthesis of music and staged drama that they spent the afternoon rehearsing. It is clear that the people who are participating in Streetwise’s sessions are developing stagecraft, vocal and acting technique and building performance experience. At Choir With No Name the singers obviously take a huge amount of pride in having friends and family see them do something well. As an organisation, Streetwise, similarly to Choir With No Name, talk about their impact along the lines of “stimulating participants’ interest in the arts” and “improving participants’ mental health”. Both organisations see themselves as stepping in where frontline services stop, fulfilling emotional and social needs: providing new communities of family and friends and replacing networks lost through the profoundly dislocating experience of homelessness. The choir members are particularly evangelical about the choir. I ask one woman, Lorraine, why she keeps coming back and she says “it’s my flicker – my flicker of light to make me stay alive”.
The german translation of the text was originally published in Positionen issue #131, May 2022.
Title photo: A rehearsal of the Choir with No Name © Choir with No Name