There are many fugitives in opera, but few characters without homes. Mélisande seems to have nowhere to go when Golaud finds her in the forest at the start of Pelléas et Mélisande, though a discarded crown that she refuses to pick up suggests that her latest address was posh.
Homeless people making opera is more rare still, yet that is what is going on at l'Opéra de Montréal (OM). The company has teamed up with a local agency that helps people who are or have been homeless, for a Street Opera project that will ultimately yield a half-hour original chamber opera.
A dozen formerly itinerant people are taking part in the conception and realization of a piece that will be based on their lives and aspirations. All are clients of Le Sac à Dos, which runs a day centre in downtown Montreal and a 15-suite apartment block for people who have experienced homelessness.
The opera company has hired a librettist and composer (José Acquelin and Éric Champagne, respectively) to write the piece, which will be premiered in May. Any or all of the Sac à Dos participants will take a hand in shaping the story, building sets and costumes, and putting the show on stage, with theatre-craft professionals and young singers from the OM's Atelier lyrique.
"I have always believed that art is not just about making beautiful things, but about social change as well," says Sac à Dos's Nicole Blouin, who pitched the idea to the opera company last year. She herself had studied theatre and dance, and believed that a collaborative and creative stage experience could help her clients broaden their horizons and reintegrate themselves into society.
"Opera is a total art form that is very good at expressing extreme emotions," Blouin says. "People who have experienced homelessness have lived in conditions of extreme stress and high emotion."
One of the participants makes the link in a different way. "Opera is a marginal art. We are marginal people," says a man identified by the company only as Sylvain. "I look forward to experiencing the meeting of these two marginalized elements."
The project is unusual for the opera company, which might normally look to its outreach programs for prospective new audience members and donors. Street Opera has a much broader meaning for the company, says Pierre Vachon, OM director of communications, outreach and education.
"The goal of this is not to sell tickets," Vachon says. Engaging with a marginalized population can only help the company clarify its purpose within the larger community, he says, while ideally reducing prejudice about the homeless. "What is the meaning of art in our time, how important is it? That's the discussion we're having now."
The participants who have been sharing their stories with librettist Acquelin have often focused on their dreams, hopes and moments of elation, Vachon says, not just the experience of having nowhere safe to sleep. A street opera need not be a misery opera, he says.
Blouin had already approached the opera company when she discovered that similar projects have been going on in Britain since 2000. Streetwise Opera has worked with more than 800 homeless or recently itinerant people in five British cities, including London, Manchester and Nottingham. The company creates new short operas every year, runs voice and acting workshops, and also supports performers who have had experience of homelessness.
Streetwise Opera was started by opera critic and homeless-shelter volunteer Matt Peacock, after a British peer was quoted as saying, "The homeless are the people you step over coming out of the opera house." The company now has an annual budget of about $1-million. Through its international arm, With One Voice, Streetwise Opera participated in the Cultural Olympiad in Rio last summer, and has seeded national organizations in Brazil and Japan.
In 2014, Streetwise Opera put some of its formerly homeless participants on the stage at the Royal Opera House – the theatre most probably in the mind of the peer who made the comment that galvanized Peacock 14 years earlier. A community chorus trained and assembled by Peacock's company appeared in an ROH production of Francis Poulenc's Les Dialogues des carmélites.
Poulenc's opera happens to be on the bill at l'Opéra de Montréal in January. The company has decided to follow the ROH's lead, says Vachon, and will include performers from its Street Opera project in the production.
"Opera is a mirror of society," says Vachon. Many different people and functions must be made to work together for the show to go on, he says.
From that perspective, integrating people who have been forced to sleep rough into an art form as expensive and specialized as opera is a utopian enterprise. It proposes a kind of society in which nobody's story and collaborative effort is unworthy of notice and celebration, whether or not they have the "right" kind of background or training.
"These are our fellow citizens," Blouin says. "They are coming out of a difficult situation, but they also have an experience of life through hardship from which they can contribute something to the community."
Blouin has attended all the workshop sessions with OM professionals and cultural mediator Claudia Bilodeau, and plans to be on hand for every stage of the collaboration. "I wouldn't miss any of it," she says. "It's very moving."
L'Opéra de Montréal and Street Opera will present a new chamber opera at Place des Arts's Cinquième Salle on May 15, in a program that will also include a documentary film about the project, and a short vocal recital by soprano Marie-Josée Lord.