Arts Preview: Vancouver Opera partners with The Kettle Society to produce a chamber musical about homelessness
For years Coreen Douglas and Colleen Maybin would see each other every December when Maybin from the Vancouver Opera (VO), would bring Douglas from The Kettle Society, clothes for her organization’s clients.
Every year they would talk about working together in the future, but neither was sure it would ever happen.
Two years ago, the partnership became a reality when the two organizations decided to join forces to produce a chamber musical about homelessness.
Written by Onalea Gilbertson and composed by Marcel Bergman, Requiem for a Lost Girl explores themes of homelessness, poverty, mental illness, addiction, and the plight of missing and murdered women.
The Kettle, an organization that provides mental health services and housing to about 5,000 people in Vancouver, put together a choir and a writing group to add to Gilbertson’s and Bergman’s creation.
“They’re adding a Vancouver flavour,” says Douglas, the Kettle’s director of fund development and communications.
“Writing songs and writing stories that reflect the lives that they've had.”
The product of this partnership will be presented in May at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre in Vancouver.
A piece about homelessness
Back in 2010, the Limes and Chamber Ensemble in Calgary commissioned Gilbertson and Bergman to write a piece about homelessness. They decided to create a choir of people who had been experiencing homelessness and have them be a part of the show and contribute to the writing.
They approached the Calgary Drop-In Centre, North America's largest homeless shelter, serving about 1,500 people nightly.
According to Gilbertson, the project was a wonderful way to bring together two different communities with different things to say.
“The goal and the aim of the project was to connect larger arts institutions like a theatre company or an opera company with the homeless community and to create a writing and music program at a shelter or community organization where we create material for the show,” Gilbertson says.
The piece premiered in January 2010, at the High Performance Rodeo, in Calgary. After the performance’s success, the show was featured in a music festival in New York in 2012, and in 2016, the project came to the Vancouver Opera.
“For us it was an opportunity to not only see what was possible in supporting this community that we are members of at the opera company but also to invite our stakeholders and our audiences into a new artistic experience, where the stories are really immediate and they're almost occurring in real time in an art form that they know really well,” says Maybin, VO’s director of education and community engagement.
Since the project started two years ago, Kettle’s choir and writing group have slowly flourished.
The writing group meets once a week. In the last two years they have been exploring different types of writing such as poetry and free writing, as well exploring different themes and subjects. Their writing will be interspersed around the script skeleton that Gilbertson has created for the piece.
According to Douglas, in the beginning, the choir was small—only five Kettle clients singing just at a whisper. There was no audition process, just some guidelines about creating a safe and respectful space. Soon more people started coming from all parts of organization.
Now there are more than 25 people participating in the choir. The same is true for the writing group.
“What I really like about the opera is the way that they've set it up, it gives us all a chance to put our own individuality into the play,” says Geoff, a Kettle client and member of the choir.
Before joining the production, Geoff was a singer/songwriter. Through participating in the choir, he found a new avenue to present some of his music and an opportunity to get involved in a special program. Geoff drew inspiration from seven years of life on the streets and a history of addiction to write and perform the songs in the production.
Fighting stigma on two fronts
Requiem for a Lost Girl is a true story about someone Gilbertson lost to the street when she was 15 years old.
“I raced against her in track and field. The last time I saw her was on the podium at a track meet. In the six months after our last encounter she had run away from home, was experiencing homelessness and addiction, was working in the sex trade to survive and someone killed her,” she recalls.
This tragedy, and in particular the stigma that surrounded the girl’s murder, has stayed with Gilbertson and spurred the creation of this piece. But while there are some tragic elements in the opera, the director wants to make sure there is a balance of light and shadow in the story.
She also wants to shine light on the stigma surrounding the opera’s key themes.
“We talk about those things in a way that is bringing a beacon of light to the subject.
But we also write about all sorts of different subjects, like the things that join us together when it comes to love, when it comes to loss, when it comes to laughter, joy,” she notes.
According to Maybin, the project is a unique opportunity to tell two stories.
“On the one hand, the piece is Onalea's libretto; on the other, it incorporates the stories of people from Vancouver that are experiencing homelessness,” she says. “It’s an interesting way to look at how we can break down the stigma that exists around these two communities.”
From the perspective of the Kettle, the show can help the audience understand more about mental health, homelessness, and addiction crises in Vancouver. It can be an opportunity to stress that people struggling with any or a compound of these issues have a life that matters and that they need support from organizations like the Kettle and the government, but also from other individuals.
“It’s our job to give that message to people in Vancouver and all over the world,” says Chad, a Kettle staff member and a member of the choir. “This is ongoing and this isn't going anywhere. We need to do something about this. We need awareness. We need support from the community.”
As for VO, they hope the performance will help fight off the stigma around the opera—“that it’s inaccessible and not really relevant in today's world,” says Gilbertson.
When the group performed last year as a part of the Vancouver Opera Festival, the director says she felt a “groundbreaking force in bringing something into the mainstream opera world that was something that was different, something that was really coming from the community.
“There's an undeniable electricity when people are sharing their truth.”
Using art to work through trauma
According to Gilbertson, this is the longest amount of time she has spent developing the piece in the community before putting on the production. By the time the performance takes place in May, the choir and writing group will have been meeting for two and a half years.
Douglas says the project’s longevity has been important for the Kettle and its clients, who can benefit from an arts program like this.
“Most of our clients are dealing with extreme trauma. They've been homeless, they're dealing with mental illness. Studies have shown that singing brings people together in a way that almost nothing else does,” she adds.
As the clients and staff have come together, they've been able to put their experiences down on paper through the writing group and songwriting and many have expressed how transformative the experience can be, including Geoff.
“I believe any venue of music can help to change the world if it's presented properly,” he notes. “You have to pick a theme that people are willing to listen to but it has to make sense too because everybody has got some sort of vision of morality that they want to try to achieve or at least meet for their own selves.”
Once the performance in May is over, the Kettle will have to consider whether to continue running the choir and writing group. Douglas says she would like to see a mentorship program at the Kettle, where clients are trained by teacher artists to actually run sing-along groups.
But while clients and staff at the Kettle are very interested in continuing the programs past May, the challenge has been to find the funds for it.
“One of the reasons that I think we're not getting funding is because funders see helping the homeless and mental health as supporting hardcore programs—getting people into housing, getting people support services, getting them meals and clothing,” she says.
“They don't understand how beneficial programs like a choir can help people deal with the trauma in their lives and get connected to services and their community and move on and be healed. I think we've got a huge bar to raise to explain to people how that can happen and how it is happening.”
Requiem for a Lost Girl will have two performances on Friday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday May 6, at 2:00 p.m., at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, in SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at 149 W Hastings Street.