The word “opera” generally does not evoke images of homeless people, drug addiction, mental illness and the US health care system. And “opera singer” usually does not refer to the Flower Lady at the corner of Elm and York.
At the Yale Cabaret’s “Sidewalk Opera,” directed by Patricia McGregor DRA ’09, opera is all about homelessness, and the characters are the homeless of New Haven. Conceived and composed by Jana Hoglund DRA ’08 in order to explore the disconnection between Yale and New Haven, the project took shape after hours of interviews with homeless people at St. Thomas More Chapel. Hoglund condensed the stories from the interviews into a libretto and then composed music to accompany the words.
Annette (Amanda Warren DRA ’08), known to most Yale students as the Flower Lady, is the main narrator, but there isn’t a substantive plot in the play. Instead, each character tells fragments of stories about some episode in his life or makes general comments about his life and life in general. The interwoven fragments, which are interrupted by the recordings of the actual interviews, do not form a cohesive narrative; the cohesion comes through the mood created and the feelings evoked by the harmony of the words and the music.
The music is played by a small ensemble of piano, violin, cello, clarinet and drums. It derives its power from the ability to reflect a broad spectrum of emotions, ranging from moving, doleful tones that accompany the story of how Annette’s children were taken from her by the Department of Children and Families, to a dramatic crescendo that reflects the story of drug addiction leading to mental illness and culminating in suicidal thoughts. There is a pervasive note of darkness underlying the music even in the relatively light moments in the play; the sound of the cello constantly creates an alarming sense of sharp edges — fitting for a description of lives on the edge.
The play successfully manages to be poignant while avoiding melodrama and conveys a sense of pathos without making its characters seem pathetic. The issues explored are sensitive and touching, but the characters do not ask for the audience’s pity. In fact, they have a matter-of-fact attitude about their situation, although they admit that “it ain’t no fun being homeless.” They joke amongst themselves; they stick together and compliment one another. “I love your smile,” says Kenny to Maria in a mock flirtatious tone. “It makes my day.”
Still, it is also difficult to forget how vulnerable and bewildered these characters are in the face of life’s harshness. This balance within the characters makes them more endearing to the audience, as well as more real and impressive. It emphasizes what it means to be survivors under such extreme conditions.
“Sidewalk Opera” calls attention to the homeless people that are always “there” whether we choose to notice them or not. It gives them a voice, and acknowledges them as individuals that have stories to tell. In listening to their stories, the audience is confronted with the injustice of the present distribution of wealth, as well as the inadequacy of social services such as health care and homeless shelters. And yet the play is not concerned with the criticism of institutions. It is more reflective than reproachful, and a call for the improvement of conditions is only an implicit message.
Yale Cabaret may not be La Scala, but “Sidewalk Opera” fulfills an important purpose: Annette will still be selling carnations in front of Au Bon Pain after she comes to the opening on Friday night, but the members of the audience will no longer be able to remain oblivious to and untouched by her story — and the stories of other homeless people — after seeing the play.