Songs for Silenced Voices is our tragic opera exploring the experiences of Britain’s homeless community, is now being turned into the world’s first animated opera for social change. It started life as two short scratch, operas which played, for free, to audiences in empty shops in Liverpool and Blackburn City Centres in 2009/10. The digital realisation of the piece will enable it to tour empty shops and festivals in the UK and beyond.
Extracts from the piece
Background and Development of the Opera
Since 2008 Collective Encounters has been working with Liverpool’s homeless community, engaging over 100 homeless and ex-homeless participants as well as 18 homeless support organisations and a range of city council departments. We have been training ex-homeless participants as performers and workshop facilitators, enabling them to produce and perform their own theatre. Our extensive research with the community showed that they wanted us to create high-profile professional work that would tell their stories to a wider public, challenge prejudice and help change perceptions. A common request was to get the message across that ‘we’re not scum’. Our research showed that ¼ of the homeless are ex-service men and women, a further ¼ have become homeless as the result of domestic violence or other abuse, many more are people leaving care, ex-prisoners, people with mental health problems and families who have had their houses repossessed.
One of the things we do as an arts organisation, is experiment with theatrical form, re-visiting existing models and re-imagining them for contemporary audiences. We’ve played with documentary theatre, music hall, forum theatre, variety, mask work, and others. We commission new music for most of our shows; but this time decided to look to opera. While it was a risk, we thought that the ‘high art’ form of opera would work well with some of the most tragic and under-represented stories of our time, that opera would lend a lyrical and elevating beauty to the gritty stories we’d heard. We wanted to test the idea with a ‘scratch piece’; we wanted to reach audiences who wouldn’t usually access opera; and we wanted to get people thinking differently about homelessness in their daily lives. So we decided to create a short, sharp, shock in a busy Liverpool shopping centre in the run up to Christmas 2009. We created Songs for Silenced Voices: A ten-minute tragic opera; then developed it to a 20 minute piece in 2010.
The piece was a huge success. Over 700 people have stopped in their tracks to watch it: 97% had either rarely or never seen opera before; 73% of them said it had made them think differently about homelessness.
The story of Songs for Silenced Voices
The piece has a timeless, epic quality. It charts the journey of The Mother, a street woman across the city, in search. Along the way she has highly charged encounters with some captivating people including The Soldier. Returned from the war and unable to readjust to civilian life after participating in such horror and atrocity he’s forced onto the street. Finally he can take no more and decides to end his life. The opera shows his dying moments as he seeks comfort in the arms of the street woman. And Irena, from Sophia who came here with the promise of a better life, only to be robbed, raped and left hopeless and alone to face the violence and brutality of street life. The Librarian, who lost his library and his life and confronts a world with no love and no books. The Mother exposes these stories, inciting us to engage with the individual stories of the dispossessed and the collective sense of injustice. Her compassion and humanity brings hope and light in the darkness.
To read about the development of this work