THE PASSION (2016)
This is one of my favourite projects. I was approached by Matt Peacock of Streetwise opera to direct a version of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. Streetwise run choir groups for people who have experienced homelessness. Matt and I both know that giving people a roof over their heads doesn’t solve their problems that made them homeless in the first place - in many cases terrible childhoods and mental health issues. And without a supportive environment the loneliness and lack of structure in an isolated bedsit can be far worse than life on the streets. Matt was inspired to set up Streetwise by Sir George Young a Conservative MP who told a newspaper, “Homeless people? Aren't they the ones you step over on the way to the opera?” And Matt thought. Why can’t they be in the opera?
There are Streetwise groups in several cities and they meet weekly and then every two years they stage a major performance in one of them. The Bach St Matthew Passion was to be performed with the Manchester group together with The Sixteen, Harry Matthews wonderful early music orchestra and singers. Matt and Harry knew the piece had to be cut to make it feasible for the Streetwise performers to learn. I offered to do the first round of cuts – I knew that the real musicians would find it too painful to mess with perfection. I slashed at it and got it down to about an hour by concentrating on the narrative and saving the most beautiful of the non-narrative parts.
Matt was worried that the piece was not uplifting. “But Matt, the Passion ends with Jesus being crucified. That’s not a happy ending.” We decided to find someone to compose us a Resurrection Chorus and Matt remembered that James Macmillan had offered to do something for them. James writes beautiful sacred music. I ran a writing workshop with the Manchester group and they came up with wonderful phrases about the darkest hour and what happens after it. I then turned their images into a text and James wrote music to that. The ending of the Passion with all the performers, Streetwise and The Sixteen on stage was a very beautiful thing and there was not a dry eye in the house, not even the performers.
From the start I knew I wanted the Streetwise singers to be absolutely at the heart of the piece. They had to play Jesus. Matt said it would be too much for one performer so I decided to split the part among a few people and have something that represented Jesus that could be passed from one performer to another. The first idea that came to me was a blue cloth – for some reason I then spent months trying to think of something else. But that was a simple idea that worked and eventually I . I bought some cheap blue cloth in Chapel Market, a street market down the road from my house just for rehearsals but we all got so attached to it that we used it in the real performance.
For months I travelled up to Manchester once a week to attend the two groups. Those were long days. I got to know people and eventually we spent half of each session rehearsing and learning the piece. We cast eight people as Jesus. I asked Matt Reid to be Judas and he was overwhelmed. “I’m always the person at the back nobody notices. You’ve given me a good part and I am not going to let you down.” Of course he didn’t. Matt would be the first to say that he is not a good singer but I asked him to sing with confidence and believe in what he was doing. “How much will you pay me if I hand him over to you?”
We cast people from the Booth Centre, some of whom were still sleeping rough, as the Pharisees and Dick made them enormously tall hats and gave them huge staves. I explained they needed to walk as if they owned the place. A lot of the cast were struggling with mental health problems and physical difficulties but in the last two weeks of intense rehearsals only one person dropped out. I set the bar high. I had just come from directing The Pearl Fishers at the Met and I was expecting the same high standard from my Streetwise cast and they rose to it magnificently.
The BBC filmed the final performance and although there was some tension between our need to make the piece for the live audience and theirs to produce a piece of broadcast television I am glad we did it. There is a record now of this work.
I was having some problems with my heart during rehearsals (boring, arrhythmia that got stuck in a very high flutter) and I knew that if I went to the doctor I’d be packed off to hospital and the Passion would collapse. I decided that if carrying on meant I would die then I would rather die doing something I believe in than running away because I wasn’t feeling very well. The day after the performance I went to A&E and was in and out of hospital several times. It was all fine in the end, totally resolved by a glamorous sci-fi electrophysiologist now better than ever but I would not have regretted making that decision whatever happened.