They Were Homeless. Now They’re Center Stage at the Opera: Meet New York City’s ‘Breaking Ground’ Choir
On Site Opera’s production of Nativity opera ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors,’ to be performed in a New York soup kitchen, features a chorus made up of the formerly homeless.
The rich, collective sound of a choir warming their voices up filled the 15th-floor rehearsal room, Broadway and Times Square a rainy, fogged-up blur outside the windows. Standing in a circle, and accompanied by a pianist, the group of tenors, basses, altos and sopranos practiced their scales, and then, as if in an urgent incantation, spoke the words of the score they would next sing.
“Free the body,” instructed Michael A. Ciavaglia, the chorus master, eliciting much loose-limbed waving of arms, as the choir and soloists continued their preparations for On Site Opera’s production of Gian Carlo Menotti's 45-minute Christmas Nativity opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, written for television and first performed on NBC in 1951.
The show will be presented in the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Chelsea, and feature professional musicians and vocalists alongside a chorus made up of people who have experienced homelessness and who now live at the 43rd Street site of Breaking Ground, New York City’s largest provider of permanent supportive housing for the homeless.
The rehearsal was taking place at the 43rd Street building, while On Site Opera is an organization that has put on site-specific operas at Madame Tussauds New York, the Cotton Club in Harlem, a mannequin showroom in Chelsea, the Bronx Zoo, Atlanta Botanical Garden, and within the dinosaur exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.
“The object is to find that perfect intersection of piece and place that speaks to us as producing artists and what we want to do in the greater arc of the company and then find the right place to do it in,” said Eric Einhorn, the general and artistic director of On Site Opera.
Ciavaglia asked for a fuller sound from the sopranos, then asked all the singers to speed up. They did, and sounded too “frantic.” And then they all sang in rousing unison: “How cold is the night, how icy is the wind.” As formerly homeless people, they would know the meaning of those words more powerfully, and literally, than many.
One of the choir, soprano Christine Flood, told The Daily Beast she had been a resident at Breaking Ground since New Year’s Eve 2016. She said she suffered from PTSD, resulting from “terrifying and violent” childhood abuse while growing up in southern Ohio. She had been homeless in her late teenage years, and then suffered from drug and alcohol addiction. She has been sober for 12 years.
“I have been very successful, then something happens and I lose it all,” Flood said. “I wanted to be somewhere where I wouldn’t lose it all and to have people around me.”
She came to Breaking Ground from a period of time living with relations upstate, whose racism, homophobia and support of then President-elect Trump made her want to return to New York City, both to become an “active citizen” and because she wanted to feel safe. “I knew I would go back to drinking or try to kill myself. I had to get out of there,” she said.
The opera was an excellent way to bring members of Breaking Ground together, she said, and had inspired Flood to suggest to those that run the community that she begin classes in teaching English to non-English speaking residents. “Language is both a big barrier, and a big invitation,” the former teacher and dancer said.
“I’m much better than I was a year ago,” Flood said of her general health. “Two years ago I couldn't have done this opera. Last year at this time I wouldn't have had the confidence to do it even, or this interview.” Next, Flood wants to finish her masters degree, and use her passion for theater and acting to “build positive change in my city and community.”
Brenda Rosen, CEO and president of Breaking Ground, which was founded in 1990, said the 43rd Street building housed both those on low income and the formerly homeless.
The organization runs 20 buildings in New York City, housing around 4,500 people, with some units especially for families (there are around 14,000 homeless families in New York, she said). Breaking Ground also has a huge outreach program, aimed at aiding the estimated 60,000 people living on the streets and in shelters.
Breaking Ground receives a potpourri of city, state, and federal funding alongside philanthropy (around $5 million a year), developers’ fees, and rents from its tenants, which is set at 30 percent of their income.
If they are unwaged, the difference is made up by rental subsidy; if they are waged, their rents are set with their salaries in mind. The average length of a tenancy at 43rd Street is around 13 years, with death, marriage, or starting a family the prime reasons for units becoming vacant.
Rosen said that around 50 percent of those living on the streets had some kind of mental illness; another vital focus of Breaking Ground’s outreach work is trying to ensure they have access to the right medication. Homelessness in New York is at a severe crisis level, Rosen said, which only becomes more dangerous and acute for those on the streets with the onset of winter.
Einhorn said the soup kitchen in Chelsea was the ideal modern location to tell a biblical story, and when the producers thought who Amahl and his mother would be in a contemporary context it led them to suggesting the collaboration with Breaking Ground. Around 25 residents auditioned for the choir, some singing scales, others ‘Happy Birthday,’ and others with original songs they had composed.
Those taking part have been invited to provide their names and photographs, and write their own miniature biographies for the show program, divulging as little or as much about their lives as they choose.
“Really, who they were, and whatever their experience of homelessness is, is secondary to them being here and doing this project with us,” said Einhorn. “I said last week to them, ‘I want people to see you beyond your housing status. When you say you’re working with a choir made up of homeless and formerly homeless people, people have the impression of what that means and it’s not an Individual one, as the members of the chorus show, it’s one of ‘huddled masses.’ I want this project to correct that misconception.”
Typically, On Site would use a university or amateur choir. But Einhorn had heard of the Dallas Street Choir and the Sex Workers Opera in the UK, and “instead of appropriating homeless narratives, we wanted the community to be involved in the narrative.”
Einhorn does not want On Site’s interest to appear exploitative or a liberal self-pat on the back, and so the choral singers from Breaking Ground will receive a financial stipend, as well as the contemporary clothes that they will wear for the production. On Site will also help Breaking Ground with any artistic enterprises that arise out of the collaboration, like the possibility of a Breaking Ground choir forming itself.
“On Site’s commitment to the chorus will not end after the final night of Amahl,” Einhorn said. “These are really wonderful people, and come [the final performance on] December 8 it will not be ‘Thank you very much, we are going back uptown.’ We’re really looking forward to a way to deepen the relationship and prolong it beyond this.”
Another choir member, 72-year-old Jemel C. Rockwell—who said his performing name was L.L. Cool J.C. Z.—is an artist, singer and songwriter with a huge passion for the Beatles. “They had such a respect for black bluesmen, they immediately won my respect,” said Rockwell, who said he had been homeless for around 30 years.
Rockwell has lived at Breaking Ground for just over eight years. He recently returned to songwriting after an extended period of writer’s block, and still hoped he could make money from his love of songwriting and music. “I never planned to be on social security,” he said. “I never planned to live like this. I want to do something with the theater, to sing, to make music, for someone to give me the opportunity in old age to do what I love to do.”
The opera, he said, had given him the opportunity to express himself creatively. “So that's why I am kind of enjoying this particular journey. Besides, I like the fact they said we can keep the clothes and have the $200 stipend. I need money for Christmas, so it’s a nice Christmas present.”
Rosen said that as well as collaborating with On Site and other collaborations like it, Breaking Ground itself encouraged residents through various in-house programs to express themselves creatively and to learn skills “to acclimate back into society and to stop isolating themselves. Some of our residents have years, sometimes decades of homelessness behind them.”
Rosen added that if readers wanted to help those who are homeless they should research the issues, and yes, give money or food directly to those in their neighborhoods, but also donate money and/or volunteering time to organizations like Breaking Ground, “who are dedicated to finding long-term solutions.”
Flood said she hoped they recorded the opera, so the choir can “post-mortem it” constructively.
“Our voices meld together quite well,” she said. “A fraction of the people had vocal training before this, but the ones following along who don’t know what they’re doing but making it happen are just as much part of this as the rest of us.”
“I grew up in hell, said Flood. “But it’s not what happens to us, it’s what we do with it. Abuse is not something you ever get over, you just don't. There are things in my life I will never get over and that's shitty and it’s not fair. But it doesn't have to define me.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘You can be courage for other people.’ I don't want to be courage for other people based on what I survived, I want to be courage for other people based on who I am. And that is where I am today. I will always be a recovering alcoholic, I will always be a survivor of childhood abuse, I will always be willing to reach out to people for that. But it’s not all that I am. I wouldn’t be who I was without it, but at the same time it isn’t my whole story.”
Rockwell said he had become aware of the project listening to WQXR, New York City’s public radio classical music station. One day he heard Leontyne Price and Paul Robeson’s names mentioned on the station. He felt these two iconic singers were telling him to get involved in the project and that the company would “welcome” him.
“And sure enough, they have welcomed me. They’re so comforting, they're politely engaging, and you ain’t got to be the greatest singer, just come as yourself. It’s like they’re reaching out to help, so I feel comfortable in the operatic environment working here on Amahl and the Night Visitors. I’m enjoying this.”
Amahl and the Night Visitors is at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, 296 9th Avenue, NYC, December 6-8. Details here.