The powerful magic of Streetwise Opera — a review of Tell Me The Truth About Love

Streetwise Opera performer Anita Ferguson, from our Manchester programme, reviews our Tyneside #LoveOpera, Tell Me The Truth About Love, which was put on by our Newcastle and Gateshead performers at Sage Gateshead::

Take some beautiful music, an absorbing story, a gifted orchestra and creatives; put these together with a talented and exuberant band of singers; what do we get? Well we get a stunning, imaginative production. But the beauty created in this show is greater than the sum of its parts. It seems that some alchemy is at work. Streetwise Opera have added an "otherness" that is hard to define. It is that powerful magic that radiates on the faces of the performers. 

My friend Phil and I have travelled to Gateshead's magnificent Sage, to see the premiere of Tell Me the Truth About Love, with Streetwise Opera and Royal Northern Sinfonia. Streetwise have taken their title from "O Tell Me the Truth About Love" by Benjamin Britten, from his Cabaret Songs, with words by his collaborator, the great poet W. H. Auden. It is a perfect choice for this fifteenth anniversary show, as Streetwise Opera sang Britten's Canticles in their very first production, in Westminster Abbey. Also, Britten was a supporter of the Community Movement, successfully marrying professional with non-professional musicians. The creatives have built a narrative around the question: What is love?

The wedding party is in full swing as I come in. I feel like a welcomed guest, sitting on the edge of the round. The idea of the story playing out at a wedding is inspired. It allows lots of solo opportunities for the Streetwise Opera performers, as they sing as a natural part of the celebration. The reception gives us an ideal setting to allow each character to tell us their story. I notice that I am inside a giant wedding cake, with the seating levels as cake tiers, giant icing flowers and all. Great fun! It's a splendid design by Samal Blak and I look forward to eating my way out.

So Gary and Gemma have got wed and we're all here to celebrate. There's a buzz of anticipation in the air that makes my heart skip a little. Tina, the bride's sister and bridesmaid, leads the guests in the title song. It is a powerful and beautifully blended rendition. The chorus is a tour de force, and excels in the high register, with wonderfully contrasting dynamics. They are bursting with energy and bonhomie and have already pulled me in. 

Gemma and Gary snatch a moment together and sing a very touching "Up Where We Belong". Louise Webster exudes a natural warmth. She sprinkles good cheer wherever she goes. She and Santino Tayler-Barret have great chemistry: What a lovely couple!

While the guests get down to some serious carousing, a love story begins. Bridesmaid Tina is a little lost. She seems alone in the crowd. She notices Jay across the room. Michael, the bride's dad, and her mum Kathy sing Stevie Wonder's classic "Isn't She Lovely". Bridgette Foley is tremendous as a strong, forthright woman and Solomon Bashiri gives us a likeable Michael. Their voices complement each other very well. 

Tina tries to join in, but is adrift from the boisterous revellers. Jay recognises this; he is also on the edge of the group. We see him gaze over at her. Their interaction begins to build slowly, but at first no one in the party notices. But we are let in. From the start, I will him to approach her, but they are both shy. 

Librettist Meriel Sheibani-Clare and local composer Anne Appleby create linking passages between each song. It is sensitive, very beautiful writing and carries us through the story seamlessly. It is written in the vernacular; I notice some wonderful dialogue. I can also hear the lovely musicality of the Geordie accents; the music compliments the natural cadences in their voices.

This production is a culmination of many, many months of planning and hard work, with creative and musical input at a high level. The director, Bijan Sheibani, has managed to give the cast freedom to express themselves, while still keeping them on point.

Gary the groom is too nervous for his speech and instead sings to his lady, a very sincere "Ja Vas Lyublyu", by Tchaikovsky. 

The music played by Royal Northern Sinfonia is exquisite. They play ceaselessly throughout. They are amazing! 

Gemma's daughter Kelly (Ellie Coakley Sigl) tells her Nana Rose (Norma Wright) about her boyfriend. Nana shares the story of her lover from long ago. They sing the lovely Northumbrian folk song: "The Waters of the Tyne." They sing of love and yearning. The orchestra seem to make a Celtic, haunting sound. I see no pipes and have no idea how they do this! It is mesmeric and so very tender. I cry quietly.

All the characters are beautifully drawn. They are all fully present in their personae throughout. I am pulled in and become emotionally invested, hoping for a happy ending. For me, there's no sense of watching a performance. A light is shone on the lives of each player, with all their wonderful flaws, with humanity and compassion. I care what happens to each one.

Gary's dad Trevor begins a speech. David Patterson plays it with wit and is an excellent physical comic. The dialogue sparkles: "By God, you're an ugly sod, but you're a chip off the old block!".

They sing "Big River", by Jimmy Nail. It's a stirring, giant of a song. It is about the glory of the shipyards and their demise. There is a clever interweaving of the history of the Tyne. The characters and families are placed into their historical context.

"This was a big river. I want you all to know that I was proud
...and in my heart I know it will rise again.
...We build 'em big. We build 'em strong"

They could almost be singing about themselves. They sing in solidarity, with great pride in their birthplace and a determination to make the best of things. Nana and the dads also brought in a historical perspective. They are a product of their shared experiences. And I'm crying again.

Tina goes to ask Kathy why she hasn't been seeing her dad for so long. Kathy sings of the struggle to rear her girls alone. She sings "Three Kids No Husband", by Brandy Clark & Lori McKenna. It is a raw, "gutsy" performance. I believe every word. Kathy and Tina seem closer.

Jay looks on. Jonathan Ainscough plays him with a very light touch. His stance and subtle gestures show his emotions. His facial expression as he gazes at her breaks my heart. He had thought Tina was engaged and is delighted that this isn't so. But then he runs away...

It's time to cut the cake. Suddenly Jay explodes out of the giant cake, to the jubilation of us all! It's another moment of high over-the-top hilarity. There was a blithe interlude earlier when we had a lot of smoke billowing about, like an '80s Top of the Pops. I'm reminded of W. H. Auden saying: "No opera plot can be sensible." Thank heavens! Jay serenades Tina with "Je Veux Vivre", from Gounod's Romeo & Juliet. His singing is affecting and sublime.

And if you think that I'm not being entirely objective, you are absolutely right! Okay, so in the interests of transparency, I have a confession to make. I am a performer with Streetwise Opera Manchester, and Jonathan is my workshop leader! It is splendid to hear him perform, as we usually only hear him sing phrases and occasionally sing Soprano... His song is over and the lady next door whispers: "That leading man is marvellous - and so handsome!" I lose the run of myself, and burst out: "Oh that's Our Jonathan!" I feel a bit like a proud mam at a nativity. 

Tina discovers that her dad, Fly, hadn't wanted to see her. Tina is desolate and then the dad from her imagination, Stephen Bell, sings "Final Lullaby". It was written by the very talented local composer, Bridie Jackson. It is very beautiful and touching: 

"You are more than your fears and the losses you carry,
...and you're still here."

The words are poignant and resonate with many who are here, I know. Stunning!

Throughout the show, people are acting, partying, not saying how they really feel. Jay and Tina, the bashful dads. The lack of physical contact serves to make the feelings more intense. This is no gathering of "social huggers". When Kathy and Tina embrace it is a significant, very moving moment.

And the party roars on. We have seen much regret and yearning, behind all the apparent joviality. It's a scene of what I'd call "desperate merriment". The real emotions are intensified by the carousing. They all sing a spirited "Blaydon Races", by Geordie Ridley. We all join in, clapping in time. It's a great relief for me. Earlier on I had to restrain myself from enthusiastically singing along. I worried that someone might realise that I had crashed a wedding!

Tina still watches Jay. She sings "Maybe Just Maybe”. It's by renowned local composer Will Todd, and was commissioned by Streetwise Opera for this production. He used ideas from the Streetwise Opera performers about what love is. Anna Huntley, acclaimed mezzo soprano, is Tina. Her singing is dulcet yet compelling. I am enchanted.

I begin to worry that I'm running low on superlatives...

An emboldened Tina goes to ask Jay for a dance, but he decides to play it cool. I want to call out to him to stop dithering about! Is he ever going to get the girl?! But then he returns and they dance together. So we have our happy-ever-after ending at last. Everyone sings and dances to "Love Is in the Air". It's the youth club disco all over again! It is an animated, life-affirming finale. Love really Is in the air and I want to punch the air in triumph!

I look at the faces of the Streetwisers. Throughout they've been earnest and dedicated, concentrating on the job. Now I see exhilaration and ecstasy. I see pure Joy, a thing you rarely see on the faces of adults. 

So what is it that makes the powerful magic that is Streetwise Opera? I think it is about humanity, compassion, empathy and, ultimately, joy. All of the Streetwisers' unique contributions are valued. We see what we are capable of. While we sing, we are equals, all past pain fades away. 

The magnificent thing is that this is only the beginning. We did The Passion in Manchester two years ago and I worried that things would feel a little flat after the performance. I remember thinking: I've been playing the Messiah; how do I follow that? But the confidence and esteem gained from this achievement will endure; it grows exponentially each time we get together, each time we sing. That is what it will be here on Tyneside. They were phenomenal today and I wish them all the best.

People come to Streetwise Opera, having had limits placed on them by personal histories, hardships, health issues. Streetwise Opera don't present "goals" to strive for. We go to the next thing and the momentum propels us to the next. We can climb high and then climb higher still. There are no limits. Streetwisers take the positive and grab the joy. It's Magic!

Photos: Mark Savage and Rey Trombetta