22 May 2015

A Revolution at the Royal Opera House

Community Ensemble (C) CUMMISKEY

We are thrilled that the Royal Opera House’s production of Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmélites received a nomination for an Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production.

This is a fitting recognition for the sort of artistic work that the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is championing: work that involves non-professionals participating in the production of a performance, which does not compromise artistic quality. In this case, the Carmelites Community Ensemble was a project we collaboratively supported, which placed a large group of amateurs from disadvantaged backgrounds alongside world-leading professional artists on the main stage of the Royal Opera House (ROH).

The Carmelites Community Ensemble was drawn from people with experience of homelessness, the criminal justice system, and unemployment and Applied Theatre students. The ensemble has it origins in a project inspired and supported by the Foundation when Streetwise Opera organised With One Voice, a special event at ROH in which 300 people with experience of homelessness took to a stage as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The magnificent performances struck me as did the comment made by the then Arts Council Chair, Dame Liz Forgan, that “this must happen again”. I remember, too, feeling that the ultimate achievement would be when these performers were allowed to perform on the main stage.

The relationship between the ROH and Streetwise Opera was truly forged on this occasion. A year later, in order to fulfil casting needs and invigorate the performance of Dialogue des Carmélites, ROH approached Streetwise Opera again and us for funding. Poulenc’s moving opera set during the upheaval of the French Revolution required an ensemble of more than 70 individuals to play the menacing crowd of revolutionaries.

We commissioned an evaluation report measuring the impact of the project and performance on participants and audiences. The report highlights an improvement in self-confidence, a sense of achievement and a greater appreciation for opera as an art form amongst participants. The evaluation also showed that involvement in the project was a positive enriching experience for participants and that they gained a range of experience and soft skills that will bring benefit to their lives.

A satisfaction survey to assess the impact that the inclusion of the Community Ensemble had on the audience’s experience shows that while very few respondents were aware of the Community Ensemble, ratings for the quality of acting and the performance were very positive. Additionally, the production was critically well-received, demonstrating that the Community Ensemble’s inclusion did not have an adverse impact on the performance. Indeed, many survey respondents felt positively about the initiative.

Both ROH and the Community Ensemble have to live with preconceptions about who and what they are every day and by working together, they have helped each other in challenging these perceptions.

The real revolution at the opera house, of course, was that people once referred to by Sir George Young as the people you “step over as you leave the Opera House” were to at last perform on the main stage.

The project highlights what can be done in partnership between a large international production company and a small dedicated organisation working with homeless people all under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, one of the most distinguished conductors of the day.

We have been working in the field of participatory performing arts since 2011 through a strand of activity called Sharing the Stage. Sharing the Stage aims to engage vulnerable people who are not unusually included to find a voice through participatory arts. We look forward to developing this work in the future so as to demonstrate the social value and artistic merit of participatory practice and to improve the wellbeing for vulnerable individuals and communities.

To find out more, watch the following  video about the story of the Carmelites Community Ensemble.

Dialogues des Carmélites at the Royal Opera House – A story about the Carmelites Community Ensemble from CGF UK on Vimeo.