Cincinnati started its annual May Festival in 1873 as a way of celebrating the human voice uplifted in song. Since then, artists from around the world come to perform during the two May weekends in the now newly renovated and gorgeous Music Hall. Last year, in addition to the May Festival Chorus, May Festival received funding to gather together a community choir for Handel’s Messiah. It was a way to extend May Festival’s reach, to have it become a community-wide embrace of music. There were no auditions and no one was turned away.
I was in that community choir. I struggled and practiced endlessly to meet the high expectations of the rehearsal conductor, Robert Porco. Over one hundred of us learned to sing with one voice, and the resulting concert was spectacular, with more standing ovations than I could count. I was on a high for days afterward!
Once again, the community chorus has been convened. The amount of music we will be performing will be far less this year, and the songs are simpler. Our concert, “Sounds of the City,” will be free, and numerous other choirs and singing groups will be performing that same day in many venues across Cincinnati as part of the effort to intertwine May Festival across all of Cincinnati’s neighborhoods.
We are singing songs of Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, two of my favorite composers. But their songs are the not the ones that wrapped around my heart. Instead, it is a piece I had never heard and could not find on YouTube: “I Awoke Today,” composed by James MacMillan. MacMillan is one of the top classical composers in the world, most known for celebrating his strong Catholic faith in his music. This song, though, is not faith-based: the words are stark, hard to hear, almost at odds with the gently flowing melodies.
The words were written by the Manchester Streetwise Explore Group. Back in 2000, in a homeless shelter in England, a resident read a quote from a politician: “The homeless are the people you step over coming out of the Opera House.” The quote both hurt and angered; it dehumanized.
But one person there saw this as an opportunity. If the homeless could come together to perform opera, it would challenge people’s views of homelessness. It would lift up rather than grind down—it would show possibility and promise instead of hopelessness and need. Matt Peacock founded Streetwise Opera, and helped the homeless residents of that shelter put on a production of “The Little Prince” at the Royal Opera House. The project transformed the lives of the performers and was acclaimed by those who attended.
Matt Peacock found a way to expand that work, and there are now Streetwise Opera groups across England, and music workshops in every homeless shelter. The organization has won numerous awards and their productions are critically acclaimed.
So, May 19th, we will be singing the heart-breaking words of the Manchester Streetwise Group. We will no longer be able to view the homeless as the failures, the destitute—as being other than ourselves. By singing their words, we are linked to them and their experience.
It is a profound and moving lesson for me, and for all of us. There are so many “others” in our lives and our nation and our world–those whom we dismiss or ridicule. By making them “other” than us, we deny their humanity and can then act with indifference to their plights—until we learn to gaze into their eyes and hear their music.
I Awoke Today
I awoke today to no signal
Lonely, helpless and afraid
I have nothing, nothing, nothing.
The red light of dawn falls like blood on the wire
Giant cranes hang their heads in shame
A city rat eats its mate in the rubble
We have all become scavengers
Death is everywhere.
Hello, hello. Is anybody there?
A stranger gave me water
I gave another food
I hear someone singing
Someone is singing
Together we’re singing
We’ll build a better place on the one
That’s been destroyed
And the rain still falls…