A Handel on Hendrix

Streetwise Opera is a unique musical project that uses homeless people in its productions. The latest, Time Flows, brings together two unlikely musical bedfellows, writes Keith Shadwick
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What would you say if someone told you they were thinking of putting on a theatrical entertainment combining the music of George Frederick Handel and Jimi Hendrix, allocating most of the acting roles to homeless people? It wouldn't seem unreasonable to suggest that they were long on hope and short on much else.

What would you say if someone told you they were thinking of putting on a theatrical entertainment combining the music of George Frederick Handel and Jimi Hendrix, allocating most of the acting roles to homeless people? It wouldn't seem unreasonable to suggest that they were long on hope and short on much else.

But that event is going to take place. For three days in the middle of August, Streetwise Opera is mounting a production called Time Flows - A Handel and Hendrix Experience. Two separate music ensembles will play selections from the two great musicians to enhance a libretto especially commissioned from author Christina Jones and delivered by a combination of professional performers and some 35 homeless people.

But first things first: who or what is Streetwise Opera? And why should it have such an idea, whatever it is? Well, a short trip around what Streetwise is will go some way to explaining why the idea occurred to its young founder and executive director, Matthew Peacock. For a start, the company - a registered charity - is singular in its combination of informed and discriminating artistic and musical taste with a passionate desire to do something about the homeless in our cities. Peacock early on realised that it was essential such people were allowed to help themselves rather than become dependent on hand-outs of any description, but the way in which he envisaged this self-help working is, to my mind at least, unique.

The self-help would come about through the good offices of staged musical events.

Now, people have theorised for millennia about the moral and ethical effect of good (and bad) music on a listener's soul, but this is approaching things from a very different direction - this is allowing public involvement in music to be part of a healing process. It all has to start from a point at which you believe that everybody in trouble is worth helping. Many of us don't think that way. As Peacock says: "When you work with the homeless, the first thing you notice is that they are just like everyone else in society but they've had more bad luck than most... many of them had very responsible, important jobs but something had pulled them off the rails whether it be family breakdowns, illness, death, job loss or something else. Unfortunately, when they get to the situation where they are termed 'homeless' they are seen by the rest of society as belonging to a social level below everyone else - almost sub-human."

An opera devotee who worked as a critic and as someone promoting and publicising operatic events, both in Britain and America, Peacock had early on attempted to bring about a union of charity and music on a part-time basis, initially with The Passage Nightshelter, but by 2002 he'd had his own private moment of reckoning and founded Streetwise Opera as a full-time venture. For six months he worked unpaid to get it up and running. The first project that Peacock nominated for his new charity to tackle was Benjamin Britten's cycle, The Canticles, a production that saw the light of day at Westminster Abbey in May that year. Performers included James Bowman and Ian Partridge along with people from four London homeless centres in what was claimed as a world premiere staging of the cycle, and moved the Dean of Westminster, Dr Wesley Carr, to note: "It's dangerous to use the word 'unique' about anything at Westminster Abbey, but we do believe that Streetwise Opera's performance of Britten's Canticles, with a cast of homeless people, is a particularly special event."

The following year's major production, combining A Ceremony of Carols and Winter Words, again works by Benjamin Britten, was mounted that November at New College, Oxford, and met with similar professions of admiration. So far, so worthy - after all, bringing together musical performances with charitable foundations has been happening since - well, at least since Handel's Messiah, in 1742, which was premiered in Dublin for charity and given in London in 1750 for, well... orphans. Now, there's an idea...

But hang on, how did Jimi Hendrix get involved?

Well, here's where I must declare a slight interest. Last November, I had a book published, Jimi Hendrix: Musician, an in-depth study of Hendrix's career and the significance of his music. Its launch was at Handel House Museum in Brook Street, London, and it coincided with the launch of an exhibition of mostly previously unseen photographs of Jimi Hendrix I'd curated for the museum. Hendrix, you see, had lived in a flat on the top two floors of the house next door to Handel's, a house now occupied by the Handel House Trust.

Meanwhile, Peacock had "wanted to do a project with the Handel Festival for some time, and I'd talked to its director, Catherine Hodgson, about collaborating". She in turn mentioned the Handel House Trust and it turned out that Peacock knew someone there. During a conversation exploring ways of pulling together these organisations late last year, Peacock discovered the Brook Street link between Handel and Hendrix, a connection that was naturally very much in the forefront of Handel House activity at the time. Incorporating this into a Streetwise Opera production was a simple step for Peacock to make.

Handel House had been a prime candidate in Peacock's mind when it came to staging the putative Handel production. Now he started thinking about uniting Handel and Hendrix - to him it felt "relatively easy to match the two - I had a deep admiration for them both and it seemed natural to treat them as a combined subject". But he had no one with specialist Hendrix knowledge to bounce the idea off. The trust told him to talk to me in order to establish the feasibility of such an idea. He rang.

I was so enthusiastic about it all that Peacock made me an authenticator and consultant to the project. To me, the idea of combining the two men in a production to do with the homeless had many more underlying confluences than might at first be presumed. Both composers struggled for years with the popular conditions of the day to assert their primacy in their chosen fields; both travelled extensively in the search for a sympathetic audience; and both ultimately became successes as expatriates in London. Neither man was English, but both have been adopted as honorary Englishmen because of that eventual success here. There was also a commonality of poverty and riches, with both men across the centuries experiencing wealth and favour as well as desperate financial and personal times. They worked for a living, after all.

For the time they lived in Brook Street (Handel for many years, Hendrix for less than one), their homes became the centre of intense cultural and social activity, with the cream of London's cutting-edge cognoscenti - as well as plenty of other not-so-scintillating visitors - dropping in on the slightest pretext. Hendrix was not the type of person to make grandiloquent statements by living in ancient piles in the country, or having three swimming pools in the basement, and while both he and Handel positively enjoyed the lifestyle their fame brought them, as well as the opportunity to meet the movers and shakers of fashionable society, it was this commitment to living in the moment that was an important link. The show that has been put together, Time Flows..., teases out this side of the two men through the dialogue written by Christina Jones and the scenes she sets whereby the London of the Beggar's Opera writer John Gay is evoked alongside that of the Swinging London of the late 1960s.

Talking of music - the music in the show is a combination of well-known and aficionados' curios. From Hendrix, we have such classics as the hippie anthem "Stone Free" and the anarchic opening of "Purple Haze", as well as such deeply personal songs as "The Wind Cries Mary" (written about his English girlfriend Kathy Etchingham), "Castles Made of Sand", "Angel" and "Long Hot Summer Night". From Handel, the emphasis is on vocal music, including "False imagine" from Ottone, the duet "Placa l'Alma" from Alessandro and vocal excerpts from Theodora and Semele. This is a serious interweaving of themes and moods rather than a showcase of greatest hits.

Jones also alludes to the fact that Hendrix, when he discovered he was living next door to Handel's old house, went out to the local record shop in South Molton Street and bought copies of the Water Music and the Messiah. It all helps to deflate the notion that Handel and Hendrix is the unlikeliest of connections.

'Time Flows: A Handel and Hendrix Experience', Trinity Buoy Wharf, London E14 (0870 532 1321; www.ticketzone.co.uk) 17 to 19 August