New Vancouver opera aims to change people's minds about homelessness, addiction and missing women

Co-produced by Vancouver Opera, Requiem for a Lost Girl features a chorus of singers who have experienced life on the streets.

Requiem for a Lost Girl features a chorus of singers who have experienced life on the streets

Requiem for a Lost Girl is part of the 2018 Vancouver Opera Festival. The show aims to change people's perceptions about homelessness, addiction and the plight of people who call the streets home. (Vancouver Opera)

Writer and director Onalea Gilbertson was just 15 years old when she got a glaring first-hand view of the spiral of addiction and homelessness.

Within the span of six short months, she watched a friend become addicted to drugs, end up on the streets, and turn to the sex trade to survive. Then she was murdered.

The death of that friend — and the shame and stigmas that swirled through the conversations about it — became the foundation of Requiem for a Lost Girl, a new chamber opera that was created in collaboration with Vancouver Opera, and is being performed as part of the 2018 Vancouver Opera Festival. The piece tackles themes of homelessness, poverty, mental illness, addiction and missing and murdered women, and begins at a memorial service for a young woman lost to the street.

Gilberton, a veteran of the esteemed One Yellow Rabbit theatre company in Calgary, along with composer Marcel Bergmann, was originally commissioned by Calgary's Land's End Chamber Ensemble to collaborate on a project about homelessness. Now they are taking that work, and the remarkable community process behind it, to cities hit hard by the problem, among them New York and Vancouver. 

Of course, the worlds of opera and theatre offer plenty of tales about homelessness, poverty and loss; what sets Requiem for a Lost Girl apart is that it features performers who have actually called the streets home.

“We decided we don't want to intellectualize this," says writer and director Onalea Gilbertson. "I really wanted to have people who are experiencing homelessness be a part of this production, and have them singing in a choir, and be a part of the performance on stage, and also have them contributing original pieces of writing to the show." (Requiem For a Lost Girl)

"We decided we don't want to intellectualize this. I really wanted to have people who are experiencing homelessness be a part of this production, and have them singing in a choir, and be a part of the performance onstage, and also have them contributing original pieces of writing to the show," says Gilbertson, who pitched the idea to Louise Gallagher at the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre, a shelter that houses up to 1,000 people a night and serves roughly 3,000 meals a day.

Soon after a singing group was formed — they called themselves the Drop-In Centre Singers — and they began the process of creating what has since become Requiem for a Lost Girl, a version of which was originally performed in collaboration with shelter organizations and performance art companies in both Calgary (at the High Performance Rodeo) and New York. 

Although the piece is being labelled an opera, and features Vancouver Opera vocalists and instrumentalists, Bergmann's score also incorporates elements of contemporary classical, art song, cabaret, jazz, and tango, in a work that conjures Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera.

"Overall, the music remains anchored in traditional tonality, but there are many moments where things are becoming quite dissonant to reflect the tension, frustration and despair inherent in the story," explains Bergmann. "There are also a couple of slow, lyrical and gentle songs that have more of a musical theatre quality."

Music: Marcel Bergmann. Lyrics: Onalea Gilbertson. Live recording, High Performance Rodeo 2010. 3:37

Chorus member Jerry Shallow first came to the production through the Kettle Society, a Vancouver organization that provides housing, employment and other support for people with mental illness. The 54-year-old, who has a mental illness and for many years experienced what he calls "invisible homelessness" — living in a car, crashing on friends' couches and sleeping on floors — had always loved to sing. So when the opportunity arose to participate in Requiem, he jumped at the chance.

Working with the Kettle Society, Vancouver Opera teaching artists including composer and conductor Lesley Sutherland, writer Alexis Maledy, and assistant director Jeff Gladstone offered weekly workshops to the chorus members, all of whom have experienced homelessness, poverty, mental illness or a combination of those and other hurdles. Each of the chorus members created a song based on their all-to-real experiences.

“The stories that you hear from everybody are personal and heartfelt and true, and that's what makes it so powerful,” says Jerry Shallow, who has experienced homelessness and mental illness, and is performing in Requiem For a Lost Girl. (Requiem For a Lost Girl)

"The stories that you hear from everybody are personal and heartfelt and true, and that's what makes it so powerful," says Shallow, who chose to write about an Indigenous friend who struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, and was living with AIDS. The more those problems progressed, he explains, the more difficult the friend was to be around.

"My song is based on my guilt about not being all that I would want with him," says Shallow, his voice trembling quietly with emotion. "It's also about walking out your door, and there are so many homeless people. I could help these people. I could give them a dollar, I could talk to them. I could do all of these things, but I would never get anywhere," he says. "There's supposedly a decline of empathy, and I can see it, because you kind of have to shut off so many of those feelings just to get to where you are going."

Shallow, who grew up a gay man in a rough-and-tumble northern Ontario town, has also witnessed countless people overdose at the corner of Main and Hastings, ground zero for Vancouver's drug crisis. "Some of them are resurrected and some of them are not. There are these crowds that go around people, and it's such a strange experience. You're there hoping this person is going to survive — but then you're feeling, like, what am I a part of here? This isn't TV."

Music/Lyrics: Carole Cote. Choral arrangement by Lesley Sutherland, Recorded and mixed by Kevin Hamilton, Fresh Air Audio. 3:12

Shallow says that every time he sings the song, it makes him cry — but that for him, singing "really is like medicine." He adds that performing alongside professional opera singers has been an incredible experience.

"I'm a tenor, and I get to be beside these exquisite beautiful instruments," he says, referring to the vocalists. "We get to listen to these people who sound so amazing. It really is like being next to an instrument. But they can talk to you."

Gilbertson says the experience of developing the show over more than two years has been transformative for everyone involved. "Some of the people talk about how much self-esteem and how much healing has come from the process of being able to join together and share and make music," says the writer and director, who hopes to take the production to other cities to collaborate with other groups.

"We're using this piece as a way to bring people into a conversation with each other — and the process is probably more important than the finished show," she says, adding that the singing group will likely continue in some form in Vancouver. "We're building a community of people to shine light, and also to share joy."

"If Greed is gone where will I deposit my desire? What other things will rise to satiate this fire — that burns me from the inside out. My heart — this seat of discontent." Music: Marcel Bergmann. Lyrics: Onalea Gilbertson. Live recording. High Performance Rodeo 2010. 2:13

Of course, Gilbertson recognizes that one piece of art is not going to solve the monumental problems of homelessness, addiction, mental health and poverty but it helps break down the barrier between "us" and "them," and humanizes the people who have directly experienced those hardships — and who literally get stepped over on the street.

"I read some of the letters in the paper about the opiate crisis, and some of the anger and rage that's focused towards people who are experiencing addiction. And it's not something I can solve, but our group is coming together to talk a little bit about that, and to say, 'Would you like to meet someone who has lost a whole bunch of friends in this crisis and hear what he has to say? And hear his poem and hear how it has affected him? And hear a little bit about the struggles he's had? Let's just hear this,'" says Gilbertson.

"And I think for an audience member to have the opportunity to meet someone who had that experience, it's transformative," she says. "It's very powerful."

Requiem for a Lost Girl is at SFU Woodward's May 4 and 6. There is also a talkback session after each performance.

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