Cathy Graham's Blog: Streetwise Opera

I want to continue on the theme of the transformative power of music that I started in my last blog. No sooner was I back in London from Delhi – having witnessed the impact of our World Voice programme – I found myself decanting my suitcase into another and setting off for Manchester to see the world premiere of The Passion, a reworking of Bach's Matthew Passion by Director Penny Woolcock and The Sixteen's Harry Christophers, performed by Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen. Having grown up in a Western Christian culture, my Good Fridays from being a teenager onwards have been marked by performances of works traditionally associated with the occasion: many hours sitting though Bach's Matthew Passion (or John Passion in a light year) or Wagner's Parsifal – wonderful, uplifting music telling the passion story or that of spiritual quest and encouraging our own spiritual reflection. What's not to like?

Streetwise Opera is a remarkable UK arts organisation which works weekly with homeless people and those who have experienced homelessness across the UK through opera, music and drama. It gives them a way to enhance their self-confidence and life skills and helps them make a transition to a better way of life. The results have been astounding since its inception 14 years ago. Every two years Streetwise Opera mounts a major professional production together with artists of the highest international calibre. This year, director Penny Woolcock and Harry Christophers (conductor and founder of The Sixteen) adapted Bach's iconic Matthew Passion for a promenade-staged performance at Manchester's Campfield Market Hall, a handsome disused fruit and vegetable market, its ornate Victorian iron pillars and glass roof giving away the secret of its past life.

A Rembrandtesque magic of human dignity ... you were experiencing at first-hand Christian religion's most powerful story of betrayal, rejection and loss

Performers, musicians and audience swarmed through the vast venue, experiencing in the most visceral way this most human of dramas. A triptych of screens stretching across one length showed close-ups of the faces and emotions of the protagonists. Various raised performance areas around the space also provided points of raised awareness for the story's inexorable progress. It was impossible to tell between Streetwise Opera performer, professional singers and milling audience as the action unfolded fluidly throughout the market building. The sheer diversity and beauty of face and form, projected and real, created a Rembrandtesque magic of human dignity, and as an audience member you were experiencing at first-hand Christian religion's most powerful story of betrayal, rejection, loss and ultimately hope and love. It was overwhelming.

At the culmination, Bach's Passion segued seamlessly into a final chorus written specially for the performance by composer James MacMillan to words written by the Streetwise Opera performers themselves:


I awoke today to no signal

Lonely, helpless and afraid

I have nothing, nothing, nothing.

The red light of dawn falls like blood on the wire

Giant cranes hang their heads in shame

A city rat eats its mate in the rubble

We have all become scavengers

Death is everywhere.


Hello, hello. Is anybody there?

A stranger gave me water

I gave another food

I hear someone singing

Someone is singing

Together we’re singing

We’ll build a better place on the one that’s been destroyed

And the rain still falls…


Words by Streetwise Opera’s Manchester Explore Group

Arranged by Penny Woolcock


On Easter Sunday the performance was broadcast on BBC4 television, and I once again marvelled at the concentration, focus, professionalism and skill of all the performers, both professional and amateur.

– Cathy Graham


With the support of the British Council, Streetwise Opera are running projects in Brazil leading up to the Olympic Games in Rio 2016 and in Japan for Tokyo 2020: