For the first time in history, homeless people got an official voice during the Olympics. It might only have been one event in London a month ahead of the Games, but it is a significant political statement, say the organisers. “This is about showing the talents rather than the needs.”

Source: INSP and CAIS, July/ September 2012

When the Cultural Olympiad organising committee wondered how to give homeless people a platform during the London 2012 Olympics, Matthew Peacock had his answer ready. As the founding chief executive of Streetwise Opera, a company that makes opera productions starring homeless and formerly homeless people, he knew how the power of music and arts could help transform people’s lives and change attitudes towards homelessness. One year on, and ‘With One Voice‘ set the benchmark for future Olympics.

cais olympics

The story in CAIS magazine, Portugal, September 2012. Photo: Danielle Batist

Peacock is proud to have brought Streetwise Opera as well as over 30 other choirs, musicians and theatre groups from around the country to the prestigious stage of the Royal Opera House. But with Rio 2016 in mind, he wants more: “Not only is this a platform for homeless people at the Olympics, it is also about telling a different story about homelessness. This is about showing the talents rather than the needs. We are enabling people to do that in a venue like this and we want this to be part of every Olympics. We started a petition addressed to the IOC and Rio 2016 organisers and we will present our experiences to them. Our event sold out which shows that people want this to happen.”

Four of the 300 participants who took the stage at ‘With One Voice’ are Paul, Jane, Claire and Andrew, who perform poetry and spoken worth with Vita Nova. Based in Bournemouth, England, Vita Nova organises workshops for people recovering from addiction. Just before their performance, Claire admits to find the experience ‘terrifying, but in a good way’. “The opportunity to take part in something like this is out of this world.” Her colleague performer Paul adds: “Performing really helps with our self-confidence. We have all experienced addiction and homelessness and this really is a platform to express ourselves.”

Through writing workshops, the Vita Nova participants learned to transform their feelings and experiences into poetry. They perform anywhere from prisons to schools and mental health institutions, to raise awareness of the issues they write about. Jane has been involved with Vita Nova ‘since the day she got clean’ four and half years ago. “I never thought I’d do anything like this. I was just smashed all the time. Vita Nova has given me a new family. They are always there for you when you’re sad. I have had no contact with my daughter, Mali. I hope I am building something she can be proud of now.”

The Choir With No Name rehearses in the Royal Opera House in London, 2 July 2012. Photo: Danielle Batist

The Choir With No Name rehearses in the Royal Opera House in London, 2 July 2012. Photo: Danielle Batist

Just how powerful the homeless performers’ material is gets proven on stage in the Royal Opera House that night. Singer/songwriter Adam O’Neill brings tears to the eyes of his audience when he sings about his dark days and dedicates a song to his mother, who passed away: “Maybe I’ll be better off in heaven/ Maybe she could love me for a while/No one really knows I’m dying inside.” His words, expressed in a raw singing voice, come straight from the heart.

When Vita Nova’s Jane reads one of her short stories, called ‘Doorways’, you can hear a pin drop in the audience: My dealer left my drugs in the doorway wrapped like a promotion pack: my little taste of heaven that could only lead to a lifetime in hell. I pretended not to hear. I was looking for butterflies but they didn’t appear.”

After performances from the proclaimed Streetwise Opera, the Choir with No Name and a stunning finale with all 300 performers together on stage, the audience is asked to summarise the evening in three words. The comments on the feedback board say it all: “Talent. Bravery. Inspiration.”