New Opera Brings Stories of Marginalized and Brutalized Women to Life

For years, Coreen Douglas and Colleen Maybin would see each other every December when
Maybin, from the Vancouver Opera (VO), would bring Douglas, from The Kettle Society, clothes
for her organization’s clients.
Every year they would talk about working together in the future, but neither was sure it would
ever happen.
Two years ago, the partnership became a reality when both organizations decided to join forces
to produce a chamber musical about homelessness. Written by Onalea Gilbertson and
composed by Marcel Bergman, Requiem for a Lost Girl explores themes of homelessness,
poverty, mental illness, addiction and the plight of missing and murdered women.
The Kettle, an organization that provides mental health services and housing to about 5,000
people in Vancouver, put together a choir and a writing group to add to Gilbertson’s and
Bergman’s creation.
“They’re adding a Vancouver flavour,” said Douglas, The Kettle’s director of fund development
and communications. “Writing songs and writing stories that reflect the lives that they’ve had.”
The production will also be presented in May at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre
in Vancouver.
Back in 2010, the Limes and Chamber Ensemble in Calgary commissioned Gilbertson and
Bergman to write a piece about homelessness. They decided to create a choir of people who
had been experiencing homelessness and have them be a part of the show and contribute to the
writing.
They approached the Calgary Drop-In Centre, North America’s largest homeless shelter, which
serves about 1,500 people nightly.
According to Gilbertson, the project was a wonderful way to bring together two different
communities with different things to say. “The goal and the aim of the project was to connect
larger arts institutions, like a theatre company or an opera company, with the homeless
community and to create a writing and music program at a shelter or community organization
where we create material for the show,” said Gilbertson.
The piece premiered in January 2010 at the High Performance Rodeo, in Calgary. Following the
performance’s success, the show was featured in a music festival in New York in 2012 and, in
2016, the project came to the Vancouver Opera.
“For us, it was an opportunity to not only see what was possible in supporting this community
that we are members of at the opera company but also to invite our stakeholders and our
audiences into a new artistic experience, where the stories are really immediate and they’re
almost occurring in real time in an art form that they know really well,” said Maybin, VO’s
director of education and community engagement.

Since the project started two years ago, The Kettle’s choir and writing group have slowly
flourished. The writing group meets once a week. Over the last two years they have been
exploring different types of writing such as poetry and free writing, as well exploring different
themes and subjects. Their writing will be interspersed around the script skeleton that
Gilbertson has created for the piece.
According to Douglas, in the beginning, the choir was small—made up of only five Kettle clients
who were singing just at a whisper. There was no audition process, just some guidelines about
creating a safe and respectful space. Soon, more people started joining from all parts of
organization.
Now there are more than 25 people in the choir. The same is true for the writing group.
“What I really like about the opera is the way that they’ve set it up: it gives us all a chance to put
our own individuality into the play,” said Geoff, a Kettle client and member of the choir.
Before joining the production, Geoff was a singer/songwriter. Through participating in the choir,
he found a new avenue to present some of his music and an opportunity to get involved in a
special program. Geoff drew inspiration from seven years of life on the streets and a history of
addiction to write and perform the songs in the production.
Requiem for a Lost Girl is a true story about someone Gilbertson lost to the street when she was
15-years-old.
“I raced against her in track and field. The last time I saw her was on the podium at a track meet.
In the six months after our last encounter she had run away from home, was experiencing
homelessness and addiction, was working in the sex trade to survive and someone killed her,”
she recalls.
This tragedy, and in particular the stigma that surrounded the girl’s murder, has stayed with
Gilbertson and it spurred the creation of Requiem for a Lost Girl. But while there are some tragic
elements in the opera, the director wants to make sure there is a balance of light and shadow in
the story.
She also wants to shine light on the stigma surrounding the opera’s key themes. “We talk about
those things in a way that is bringing a beacon of light to the subject,” she explained. “But we
also write about all sorts of different subjects, like the things that join us together when it comes
to love, when it comes to loss, when it comes to laughter, joy.”
According to Maybin, the project is a unique opportunity to tell two stories.
“On the one hand, the piece is Onalea’s libretto; on the other, it incorporates the stories of
people from Vancouver who are experiencing homelessness,” she said. “It’s an interesting way
to look at how we can break down the stigma that exists around these two communities.”
From the perspective of The Kettle, the show will help the audience understand more about
mental health, homelessness and addiction crises in Vancouver. It can be an opportunity to
stress that people struggling with any, or a compound, of these issues have a life that matters
and that they need support from organizations not only like The Kettle and the government, but
also from other individuals.

“It’s our job to give that message to people in Vancouver and all over the world,” said Chad, a
Kettle staff member and a member of the choir. “This is on-going and this isn’t going anywhere.
We need to do something about this. We need awareness. We need support from the
community.”
As for VO, they hope that the performance will help fight off the stigma around opera—namely,
“that it’s inaccessible and not really relevant in today’s world,” said Gilbertson.
When the group performed last year as a part of the Vancouver Opera Festival, the director said
she felt a “ground-breaking force in bringing something into the mainstream opera world that
was something that was different, something that was really coming from the community.
“There’s an undeniable electricity when people are sharing their truth.”
According to Gilbertson, this is the longest amount of time she has spent developing a piece in
the community before putting on the production. By the time the performance takes place in
May, the choir and writing group will have been meeting for two and a half years.
Douglas says the project’s longevity has been important for The Kettle and its clients, who can
reap the benefits of an arts program like this.
“Most of our clients are dealing with extreme trauma. They’ve been homeless; they’re dealing
with mental illness. Studies have shown that singing brings people together in a way that almost
nothing else does,” she said.
As the clients and staff have come together, they’ve been able to put their experiences down on
paper through the writing group and songwriting, and many have expressed how transformative
the experience can be, including Geoff himself.
“I believe any venue of music can help to change the world if it’s presented properly,” he said.
“You have to pick a theme that people are willing to listen to, but it has to make sense too
because everybody has got some sort of vision of morality that they want to try to achieve or at
least meet for their own selves.”
Once the performance in May is over, The Kettle will have to consider whether to continue
running the choir and writing group. Douglas says she would like to see a mentorship program
running at The Kettle, where clients are trained by teacher artists to actually run sing-along
groups.
But while clients and staff at The Kettle are very interested in continuing the programs past May,
a particular challenge has been finding the funds to do so.
“One of the reasons that I think we’re not getting funding is because funders see helping the
homeless and mental health as supporting hardcore programs—getting people into housing,
getting people support services, getting them meals and clothing,” she said.
“They don’t understand how beneficial programs like a choir can help people deal with the
trauma in their lives, get connected to services and their community, and move on and be
healed. I think we’ve got a huge bar to raise to explain to people how that can happen and how
it is happening.”

Courtesy of Megaphone / INSP.ngo

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