When the Tenderloin Opera Company performs, it is not so much a matter of art imitating life, as it is art illuminating life on the margins. The Providence-based music and theater group is made up of people who are homeless, or who have been homeless and their advocates.
Kirsten Volness, who teaches composition and theory in URI’s Department of Music, and her fiancé Jacob Richman, a lecturer in film/video production and theory in the Department of Art and Art History and in the Harrington School of Communications and Media’s Film/Media Studies Program, are the volunteer co-directors of this shoestring group. “I feel I can accomplish something with art and see tangible results,” Volness said of her role.
She brought a half dozen members of the group, which numbers more than 20, to Hillside residence hall recently to perform and answer questions for an audience of students, faculty and staff. She accompanied the troupe on the piano while students from her ear training and sight-singing class sang along.
“I liked that it was an advocacy group, and I really liked the lyrics,” said Tara Gozaydin, a freshman music and psychology major from Hope Valley who participated after just a day of rehearsing.
The company meets every Friday at Mathewson Street Church in downtown Providence, where participants get their juices flowing with writing exercises involving 3-by-5 index cards. “One person might write down three things that happened to them that day, then hand the card to the next person who writes a line filling out a scene and hands the card on,” Volness explained.
The group then makes up songs or poems and fleshes out the scenes and characters. David Eisenberger, a formerly homeless member who has been with the company for seven years, is a prolific poet but this was his first collaborative writing experience. “We just mind meld,” he says of the process. “And it hones my writing skills.”
The group performs a full musical each May in Providence, and the rest of the year sings selections at universities, soup kitchens, art events and protests. Show themes include transportation challenges, corrupt politicians, going hungry, or losing friends to the hardships of the street. Despite the serious themes, the songs convey messages of hope, friendship, resilience and common humanity, and are often humorous.
A song about public transportation dovetailed with a successful advocacy effort to get free bus passes reinstated for riders who are poor or have disabilities. That song ends, “We’re walking, we’re walking, we’re walking… again.” A number about being short on cash observes, “Sure, money can’t buy you love, but love can’t pay the electricity.”
Volness is an accomplished musician and educator, but that is not her primary focus here. The troupe members are her friends. “It’s a lot of fun, and I love the people,” she said.
“This group is like family to me,” Eisenberger agreed. “We all come from different walks of life but we have a common bond.”
The singers may not be polished, but that is irrelevant. “Our motto is ‘wrong and strong,’” Volness says. “Our message is the point.”
The company will perform its new opera May 5 and 12 at 2 p.m. at Mathewson Street Church, 134 Mathewson St., Providence.