"It's not hard to sing with conviction"
Streetwise Opera Manchester - IMG_9575 - Photo Rey Trombetta
Anita Ferguson

When we gathered in the Nexus Cafe in Manchester, it felt like a forlorn place, but once we started singing we breathed plenty of life into it. Marigold & Martin had come up to see us on the London train, to tell us about an exciting new project - Re:sound. We are spending a year creating nine micro-operas in Nottingham, London & Manchester. Each city has three distinct groups, creating original pieces with a composer-in-residence. Exploring our cities.

I perform in the Streetwise Sessions group and we worked with composer Nick Lewis. We began by brainstorming ideas, feelings & phrases about Manchester: about special places, objects & people that epitomise our city. I chose the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, which was erected in St Peter's Square in 2018, centenary year of Women's Suffrage. Manchester is rightfully very proud of the Pankhursts, who were born in Hulme. Some chose places like Old Trafford & the Ethiad Stadium, the Reds & Blues working side by side. We talked about our stunning Central Reference Library, the Art Galleries, People's History Museum, the wonderful Bridgewater Hall - home of the Halle. The air was buzzing as we invented characters for our story. I chose a protester. Manchester has a long history of protest, from before the industrial revolution and later the Peterloo Massacre. In fact, Streetwise Opera performed in a huge concert at the Royal Northern College of Music, which was organised by Manchester Histories, to mark the Bicentennial of Peterloo: "Protest Songs".

Nick was spoilt for choice. I was pleased when my character was chosen, a gentle rebel called Florence; she is my soulmate. She meets a businessman called Ernie in St Peter's Square & a lively exchange ensues. I can't tell you any more here; you'll just have to go to our performance! Our song is called "Spirit of Manchester", about an an ethereal being called Aquabella, the embodiment of tolerance & fair play. The song is uplifting & full of drama, with changing rhythms & some unpredictable notes. We do love a challenge at Streetwise Opera! We spent several weeks getting it just right, with our leaders Jonathan & Sarah. We also devised action with choreographer Kate, which gives a very polished piece of work. . It really is co-created by us all. At Streetwise Opera, everyone's contributions are valued.

In the meantime, Emily Levy had been working with Women's Direct Access in Manchester, creating City of Bee-ting Hearts. She came along to teach us the song. I love it. It is sombre in parts, but with a positive message: a thing of beauty.

In July we launched Re:sound to friends and partner charities. It all went very well, especially with the array of pretty cupcakes and sparkly drinks ; mmm… I do love art! Louise & I did a duet, singing Aquabella's lines above the rest. What is it about singing high and giving it some welly! I was really pleased to meet Victoria, producer from Nottingham. We'd worked closely together on Zoom, during lockdown and I already felt that I knew her well.

We then had our summer break. I spent many weeks in captivity, hiding from the heat & the pollen; those Manchester worker bees are relentless! Thankfully they've now gone on their holidays. Breathing is such a treat! During the summer, we found out that our dear friend Danny Collins had died. He was a dedicated performer with Streetwise. We held a memorial for him and sang a rousing "Nessun dorma" from Turandot. We shall miss him a great deal.

We were all thrilled to be reunited in September, getting straight back into work with Jonathan. We went through our two Manchester songs. The next task was to learn songs written in London & Nottingham. We will be showcasing six songs at a performance in December, so there's lots to do. We've learned the Notts' song "We're Not 'Avin it!", composed by Alison Willis and the Streetwise sessions group. It tells the story of Luddites. The workers are worried that they will lose their jobs because of new machines, and the bosses try to persuade them that there is no choice. At times the bosses become impatient and angry; this is shown with some great dialogue and choppy rhythm. The script is very much written in the vernacular; the words are perfect for those characters, at that time in history in Nottingham. In one section the rhythm is like a rap, so the piece has an updated, contemporary feel. Many of the issues the song deals with are relevant today. I love this song , and I can't help but wish it was ours! At the next session, we worked on another Nottingham creation: "Everything Happens at the Clock", composed by Tim Lole and individuals at Emmanuel House. It's very verbose, with ever-changing rhythms and unpredictable melody. There were a few sighs among the group. But as usual Jonathan is encouraging and upbeat and I know we'll master it. It's another little belter from Nottingham!

We were asked to perform our Manchester songs at a Heritage conference at Manchester's National Football Museum. It is a stunning modern building. We were greeted by our own Gareth, freelancing for the session, as well as Martin & Rey. We were to sing in front of 300 people and the room was set up for a posh formal meal. Trembles all round! We did a sound check and our voices disappeared into the rafters. But once Jonathan arrives we feel a little more brave. Martin tells us that we are lucky to have gotten the gig. I'm not convinced. I was glad to have some solo lines and it's good to try. I was filled with apprehension and abject terror.

I change into my Streetwise Opera t-shirt and, as if by magic, I feel better; I know that all the family are together and that It will be all right. The audience listen intently and there's a great vibe in the air. We sing our gentle Bee song, which i love. It goes down as well as the gateau. Next we sing Spirit of Manchester, our own song. The words are all ours and we know them inside out. I worry that the audience will hear my knees knocking... I step forward and sing my first line. It's a beautiful bit of tune and has been my favourite part from the start. I focus on Jonathan's face and I know that everyone is willing me on. I can hear a voice singing and it's mine and I think it sounds okay. The six Ernies and six Florences sing their hearts out and enjoy a good scrap. We really inhabit the parts. I sing "Don't we all deserve the same!" three times, higher and above all the others. We raise the roof! I'm singing of things that I truly believe in, so it's not hard to sing with conviction. There's tumultuous applause. I look at Jonathan: he’s like a proud Mam at a nativity!

Martin thanked the Heritage staff for their grant for online projects. We spent two years making some beautiful creations and Streetwise gave many of us a lifeline during the pandemic. I was completely isolating for over a year, and I don't know how I'd have got through it without Streetwise Zooms. I said a silent thank you to all those assembled. Streetwise have applied for some more funds and we hope that our songs will have helped with the bid. What a lovely way to spend an evening!

In the next few workshop sessions our confidence blossoms as we master the Nottingham songs. We have also dipped into one of the London songs, which is about the Thames and it has the beautiful flow of a river. It is a beauty.

So far I've loved every single thing about this project Re:sound! I've loved the creative stage and working with the composers. There is something very special about knowing that, across the three regions, Streetwisers are all singing the same songs. I feel very much part of the family and it's fascinating to find out what our cousins in London and Nottingham have created.

There will be lots more work to do, leading up to each region performing their big shows in March. They will all happen in a week, so there'll certainly be a feeling of togetherness, as we sing each other's songs. Streetwise Opera always gets the very best from each performer. Jonathan and Sarah are fantastic leaders. We want them to be proud of us. They nudge us along to the next challenge with great patience and good humour. With each performance, our self-belief grows.

What's next? I cannot wait for the next stage of the project. All that's left to say is: “Bring it on!"

Anita Ferguson
Anita is a performer in Streetwise Opera's workshops in Manchester

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