Ahead of the Stokesley Song Fest, Jan Hunter meets opera singer Emily Smith and talks about her work with Teesside choirs of homeless people and asylum-seekers

A TORY baronet once said that the homeless were the people that you step over when you came out of the opera, but walking into Mima on a Friday afternoon, the voices of the Middlesbrough Homeless Choir singing opera filter into the gallery space all around.

People stop to listen, overwhelmed by the impressive sound, as the voices, conducted by Emily Smith, prepare for a concert as part of the Streetwise Opera project.

Streetwise is an award-winning charity that helps people who are, or who have been, homeless, stage operas, and singer Emily is readying them for the concert March 1 in Middlesbrough Town Hall.

With her husband, tenor David Pisaro, Emily also conducts a choir of asylum seekers at the Middlesbrough Institute for Modern Art for the Methodist Asylum Project (MAP).

“Asylum seekers are so often vilified,” she says. “They are people who fled their homes to save their lives. They enrich the group with the music they bring. Many are professionals and people with skills who would be an asset to this country. I want their music and voices to be heard.”

Emily, who is one of the teachers at this month’s Stokesley Song Fest, is passionate about the positive effect music can have on people’s lives.

“I always work to a high level but we have fun, and the atmosphere is supportive and inclusive,” she says. “We look at common and relevant themes within the opera stories, and they often put their own lyrics to the music. During the MAP sessions, we work with the different languages of the people we teach. They share music from their own countries, which enriches the experience, and we hope that our sessions bring a moment of peace in their often difficult lives.”

Emily is a local girl from a musical family – the Brodsky String Quartet comprises her aunts and uncles. She was inspired by her music teacher, Mr Lewis at Hallgarth School, Middlesbrough, and achieved Grade 8 in piano singing and cello, before going to study at the Guildhall School of Music in London, where she David.

After two years working in London, they decided they wanted to do music in a less competitive and crowded place. They returned to the North-East, and Emily began a pilot scheme for Durham County Council to use singing, rather than medicine, to treat depression, back pain and breathing. She set up choirs at three leisure centres and worked with them for five years.

In 2005, she became the director of Sage’s Sing Up project, where she travelled around primary schools singing with children and encouraging teachers to set up school choirs.

“Singing and being part of a choir can be life-changing,” she says. “During my time with the Sing Up project I worked at Berwick Hills school in Middlesbrough with year seven, eight and nine boys. It was noisy but such fun. We sang lively gospel music together, and those boys thrived!”

So much so that in 2007, Emily took this choir to perform O for the Wings of a Dove at Ripon Cathedral.

“I believe in challenges,” she says. “I work on classical pieces with children and am constantly amazed by them. They are never fazed. Even if they can’t read music they get on with it as they are naturally inquisitive. We have fun and they respond, nothing seems to be too difficult for them.”

She and David have two children of their own Alfonzo, three, and baby Rocco, who is sometimes seen on his father’s arm while he is conducting.

She likes to bring the experience of singing to places where there isn’t much music. She is artist in residence for both Opera North and Scottish Opera. Opera North took her to Bridlington in 2011 and for two years, opera took over the town, its primary schools, and old people’s homes. She was teaching opera to people with learning difficulties and to the travelling community, concluding with a massive community concert at Bridlington Spa, written by Lee Hall, the writer of Billy Elliot.

Scottish Opera has taken her to Glasgow to work in the largest homeless centre in Scotland. “We performed an opera in the Gorbals of Glasgow,” she says. “It was wild!”

She says no obstacles to prevent people from singing – she feels people who are not trained in opera brings a rawness to the music.

“Language is not a barrier,” she says. “Three times a year I work in Spain. I travel around the main cities in southern Spain auditioning students for youth choirs. I began this when my Uncle Mike moved to Seville and David and I went out there to sing Handel’s Messiah. We worked with both the youth choirs and children’s choirs of Andalusia, as well as performing in concerts and recitals ourselves.”

She sees her future as taking opera to different and unlikely places. There are choir projects coming up in a shopping centre in Hull and for office workers in their lunch hour, and she conducts the 120-strong Middlesbrough Community Choir, again at Mima.

She also wants to expand her work with asylum seekers and the homeless, and recently she received a message from one of the MAP asylum seekers. It read: “The singing sessions at MAP are not just the best thing I have done since coming to the UK, but the best thing I have done in my life.”

Emily is proving the words of the Spanish novelist Miguel Cervantes are true: “He who sings scares away his woes.”

BLOB The homeless and asylum-seekers choirs perform at Middlesbrough Town Hall on March 1 at 7pm in an evening billed as a joyful and refreshing hour which cuts through the stuffiness of traditional opera. It will include the premiere of After the Storm, an opera piece created by composer-in-residence Hayley Jenkins. Tickets are available from the Town Hall. Emily is also one of the teachers at Stokesley Song Fest over the weekend of February 15-17. Details from julia@haighs.org.uk.