Ket­tle choir raises its voice in op­er­atic Re­quiem

> BY JANET SMITH

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -

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

Ket­tle res­i­dent Geof Mil­son has writ­ten an orig­i­nal song for at the Van­cou­ver Opera Fes­ti­val.

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