Streetwise Opera: Changing lives through song

Streetwise Opera participants rehearsing.

27 June 2016

The problem

It’s estimated that there are more than 100,000 people experiencing homelessness in the United Kingdom, and thousands more ‘hidden homeless’ sleeping rough. According to the Homelessness Monitor, a five-year study by academics from Heriot-Watt and York universities, one in 10 adults in England alone has experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, a fifth of them since 2010.

Homelessness is often preceded by major life events, such as the end of a relationship, unemployment or leaving an institutional setting. Many homeless people have also experienced trauma and abuse. Added to this can be social exclusion, with the general public fearing or not understanding the challenges faced by homeless people.

The proposition

Some agencies working with homeless people focus on social inclusion to help them integrate back into society. In 2002, former homeless shelter support worker and opera critic Matt Peacock established Streetwise Opera in the UK, offering free weekly singing workshops to people who had experienced homelessness with professional singers teaching performance techniques.

"The support Streetwise Opera has had from Macquarie Group Foundation is one of the most important factors in the charity’s success over the last decade."

Matt Peacock MBE
CEO, Streetwise Opera

The organisation also stages critically acclaimed opera productions where its participants star alongside professionals.

Group singing is at the core of Streetwise Opera and has been documented to improve wellbeing, boost the immune system, reduce anxiety and stress, help people cope with chronic pain and lessen depression and loneliness.

The partnership

A meeting between Streetwise and the Macquarie Group Foundation in 2007 progressed to a long-term, multi-level partnership. This subsequently led to:

  • Co-mentoring between Streetwise founder and CEO Matt Peacock and senior leaders within Macquarie
  • Pro bono support to review the charity’s brand and redesign its logo
  • IT assistance with an office move, desktop support, server switch and IT sustainability advice
  • Input into Streetwise’s strategic reviews and business planning
  • Volunteer support at Streetwise performances
  • Macquarie staff serving on the Streetwise Opera Board
  • Events hosted at Macquarie’s London office
  • Streetwise involvement in the Macquarie Directors leadership training program, during which Macquarie staff were matched with Streetwise participants for three months to help them work on their progression planning and employability skills

Macquarie staff and the Foundation have contributed £480,000 to Streetwise, as well as more than 1,000 volunteer hours and in-kind support worth in excess of £50,000.

The Macquarie Choir and the Streetwise Opera ensemble also performed together during Macquarie’s 2015 Foundation Week, raising over £700 in donations for Streetwise’s work.

The impact

From a one-man start-up idea, Streetwise Opera has grown into an award-winning organisation with worldwide recognition and a 15-strong staff team.

Weekly music programs are held in homeless centres and arts and community venues across England. Participants sing and act, with specially trained professional singers teaching performance techniques to boost confidence.

The organisation also stages critically acclaimed opera productions where its performers star alongside professionals. Productions have toured worldwide from New York to Beijing and at high-profile festivals, promoting more positive attitudes towards homeless people.

From the perspective of Streetwise participants:

  • 80% of participants reported better social networks
  • 77% of participants reported increased creative skills through participation
  • 73% of affected participants reported reductions in substance misuse
  • 89% of participants reported improved mental or physical health
  • 80% of participants reported increased self-esteem
  • 82% of participants reported increased confidence

Since 2007:

  • 2,500 participants reached approximately
  • 133 opera and theatre trips enabled for participants
  • 4,018 workshops delivered
  • 300,000 people audience reached
  • 6 new opera productions organised
  • 212 public performances staged
  • £385,000 to £900,000 increase on annual turnover
  • 413 to 794 almost doubled its annual participant numbers from 413 in 2008-09 to 794 in 2014-15.

Source: Streetwise Opera, March 2016

Photo credit: Alan Kerr