The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Matt Peacock
Matt Peacock
Chief executive of Streetwise Opera
Photo: Tadashi Okouchi

Streetwise Opera
Streetwise Opera
Presenter Interview
Homeless and Artists Working Together  Streetwise Opera 
Homeless and Artists Working Together  Streetwise Opera 
Streetwise Opera (SWO) is a British social art organization established in 2002. In addition to presenting a full-scale opera production once a year with a cast of professional musicians and participants from homeless centers, SWO also holds music workshops on a regular basis at cooperating homeless centers as a means to help homeless people toward social independence and self-reliance. SWO’s founder, Matt Peacock, was recently among 30 top social entrepreneurs and community activists featured in Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s book Britain’s Everyday Heroes. Still in his mid-30s, Peacock started SWO as an outgrowth of his experience from years of working simultaneously as a music journalist and homeless shelter worker with the aim of using his expertise in the field of music to help homeless become involved in society again and change people’s preconceptions about the homeless and the reasons for homelessness. We spoke with Peacock about SWO’s activities on the occasion of his recent visit to Japan with his organization’s first video work, My Secret Heart, created in collaboration with more than 100 homeless from around the UK.
(Interviewer: Kyoko Iwaki)

In the United kingdom today there are said to be about 700,000 households needing welfare support, including some 500 “rough sleepers” (homeless living on the streets) and approximately 400,000 homeless living in temporary welfare shelters. Streetwise Opera (hereafter SWO) was founded in London in 2002 with the aim of providing support to these people living in harsh conditions through music. As the founder and Chief Executive of this group, can you tell us about its present activities?
At present, SWO is engaged in two basic types of activities. The first is the stage performances we mount once a year created through the workshops with professional artists and homeless people and performed mainly by the homeless people as the actors and stagehands. These performances have been held each year since the first production, Canticles, performed at Westminster Cathedral in 2002, using music by Benjamin Britten. That first production was very well received artistically, with the theater critics of a national newspaper giving it a 5-star rating. On the same page of that newspaper a concert by Madonna was given only a 3-srtar rating (laughs). In other words, our approach is different from many social art groups that say the meaning is in participation, not the artistic quality of the performances themselves. I think anyone who gives homeless the opportunity to participate in works know that there will be social benefits through the communication and self-esteem it gives these people. But I believe that if you can put on artistic work that is also of high artistic quality it will open up so many more benefits for the participants, because they feel respected. And we actually had participants in this year’s SWO performance saying that they felt they had gained respect they don’t normally have.
 Then there is a second type of activity we are involved in that is even more important than these yearly performances, and that is the workshops we do on a regular basis at 11 centers for the homeless. We have 30 professional musicians working as out workshop leaders, and they do 2-hour workshops every week at the same time on the same day. This regularity is important. That is because of the tremendous passion they bring to this opportunity to perform once a year. That intensity is greater than average people. Seeing how serious they are made me realize how important regularity and consistency is in bringing mental and emotional support to the homeless. So you could say that the two key policies of our project are Respect and Regularity.

In Japan, 90% of the homeless are men and 80% of those are over the age of 50. In the UK, the 90% male figure is the same but the age demographic is very different, with 80% being under the age of 45. What are the main factors that lead to homelessness in the UK?
Often there are a number of interrelated factors involved in persons becoming homeless. So it is hard to make generalizations. But if you do try to analyze it, the majority are people who have been institutionalized at one point in their lives, they may have been children in care, or it could be that they went to prison or were in the army. A large proportion are people who go into the streets have been in the army. This is a kind of interesting fact, because a lot of people who have experienced warfare tend to have emotional damage. And they may have spent several years not worrying about where they are living or buying food and all. So that is a big problem.
 A huge amount of young people get into trouble. A lot of women go through Women’s Aid—which is a charity NPO—when they become the victims of violence. And they find themselves in a homeless situation. And you have marriage breakdown, which is a big factor. And then you have men whose marriage is finished. What usually what happens in the UK in the case of a divorce is that the woman almost always gets the house, especially if there are children involved. Then the men don’t have anywhere to live, they lose their jobs and spiral downward from there. Alcohol and drugs is another factor, but that usually happens as a secondary problem after people have been on the street.
 You also have a lot of refugees and other people who have fallen out of the benefit system. There is also a huge amount of mental problems. About 40% of the people we work with have mental health issues that can learning problems or undiagnosed psychosis or schizophrenia or various levels of depression. And once people get on the street there is a massive increase in depression, as you would expect. A study I read recently said that something like 80% of the people on the streets do self harm or have suicidal tendencies.
 The support structure in the UK is very sophisticated, in a way. It started off with churches mainly and the Christian religion helping out. Today there is nationwide system of homeless centers and people can go to them and get lodging and go through a structured strategy of support. Those who are ready to move forward they will be put on a housing list and if they are lucky they can get a house or a flat in about six months. But that is only for those who are 100% ready to move forward. If they are not, it will be meaningless even if they get a place to live.

Community art activities (creative activities using art for community activation or for improving quality of life for the handicapped, elderly and children) have been popularized since about 30 years ago in the UK. Have there also been art activities to improve conditions for the homeless for some time now?
One of the organizations that inspired me to start SWO, an organization named Cardboard Citizens, had been doing theater with the homeless from as long as 25years ago. There are also two or three other arts organizations supporting the homeless. But what they do is called Forum Theater. What they do is make plays about the problems confronting he homeless, like drugs. So it is completely different method from what we are doing when we stage operas with the music of Britten and Mahler.
 In any event, it has only been in about the last five years that the government has begun to recognize that arts can be used to help the homeless. Before, it was very clear what to do: you give them a house or a job. But there were problems with that. When these people got a flat they didn’t even know what to do with the new shiny pots and pans. They didn’t have the social skills to stay there, so a lot of people come back to being homeless. So they began to realize that along with the practical help these people needed more personal help. That is where the art came in, and it came to be used to help the homeless.
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