The Tenderloin Opera Company Gives Voice to the Homeless

How music and story telling serve as advocacy for Providence's homeless population


The arts have long been used as a tool for advocacy and awareness – music in particular, with its rich history of storytelling, protest and oral tradition. Here in Providence, Tenderloin Opera Company uses musical compositions to shed light on the issue of homelessness, as told by the very men and women who have struggled to have some of their most basic needs met.

The Tenderloin Opera Company is the brainchild of musician and teacher Erik Ehn, who first started the group in San Francisco (its namesake, the Tenderloin, is a section of the city that’s home to a large homeless population). The group began to establish roots in Providence in collaboration with human services agency HeadsUpInc. Erik began recruiting artists and students – among them, Jacob Richman, who holds a Ph. D. from Brown University’s music and multimedia program – for help with the nascent project.

The Matthewson Street Church downtown became the choir’s new home. Jacob explains that there was already a “sister group” there, The Speaker’s Bureau, which helped train current and formerly homeless people to share their experiences in order to raise awareness of the daily struggles happening all around us.

“We recruited a lot of members from that group,” explains Jacob, adding that 2010 was the year the company found its momentum.

The Tenderloin Opera Company meets once a week for a season that follows the school year (Erik, Jacob and Jacob’s partner Kirsten Volness are all teachers) and culminates in a full-length performance at the church in April. Unlike a typical opera company, which might commission work from a composer, Tenderloin’s material is generated by its own creative members.

“We start with writing exercises and check-ins with everybody,” says Jacob of the group’s process. The writing exercises can be as simple as listing things one might have seen on his or her way to rehearsal on a 3x5 index card. Thereafter, the exercises start to become collaborative – members play off of one another’s answers. Eric collects the text and over the course of the year, the group starts to tease out certain characters – a schizophrenic man, a shape-shifting dog. Things can get a little weird, says Jacob, despite the seriousness of the topic, which makes for great storytelling.

“We’re all pretty lighthearted,” he says. “But it all ends up being very personal… The stories are melded together through multiple narratives and abstracted by different events.”

Jacob gives an example of one woman whose house burned down, leaving her homeless for a period. As she shared her story, the group began to talk about issues related to the development of affordable housing, or lack thereof. They wrote about politicians who would turn into dragons, burning homes down. Once the core story is shaped, Erik curates the music and volunteer singers and musicians join the group to help with the performance.

“A majority of the people in our core group are formerly displaced homeless advocates,” says Jacob of the collaborators. “But it’s a mix – the age and background range is very broad.”

Even if an individual shows up for one rehearsal and is never able to make another, the beauty of the company’s process is that that person’s story is folded into the larger whole. “Everybody has a little bit of their own story in the pot,” says Jacob.

According to statistics from the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, 4,868 Rhode Islanders – men and women, children and families – were without a home in 2012, and this number grows every year. It’s hard to overstate this population’s need for safe shelter, food, clothing and healthcare. It’s easy to see why there’s less of an emphasis on creating arts-related programming pertaining to the issue when there’s so many basic needs that must be met. But still, the importance of groups like the Tenderloin Opera Company shouldn’t be overlooked, says Kirsten, and both she and Jacob were thankful for the dedicated group of volunteers that help make this happen year after year.

“Everyone gains so much by doing it,” she says. “Everyone seems to be really thankful and to look forward to meeting again. It’s like another family for all of us, really.”

In addition to the creative outlet the company provides, the opportunity for self-expression serves a higher purpose: educating the public about what goes on right under our noses. “All the time, people tell us that they couldn’t imagine that these things go on,” Jason says. “And it’s great to see these stories in person rather than just in print.”

Tenderloin Opera Company
134 Mathewson Street