‘We didn’t know better. Now we know better, we have to do better.’ Towards the end of the Pureland Series event, Grammy award-winning opera star Joyce DiDonato quoted Joseph Wilson, African-American composer and inmate at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
Talking of her work in the maximum security prison in NY with a programme that teaches classical composition to inmates, DiDonato said, ‘Music instills clarity and dignity. I have a responsibility to pass that on.’
Charming and with a diminutive frame that hides the huge and beautiful voice that has won her the respect and admiration of fans worldwide, DiDonato took to the stage of the Pureland Series at China Exchange with panel members, Matt Peacock MBE, Artistic Director of the charity Streetwise Opera and Anis Barnat founder of El Sistema Greece to discuss the role of music as a force of social integration, mutual understanding and personal transformation.
As her latest album, In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music, a collection of baroque arias from the 17th and 18th centuries is released, she described how the project was initially set to be a collection of ‘obscure Neapolitan arias’. However, when the terrorist attacks in Paris happened in November 2015 ‘The attacks shocked me into radical change. The idea for this album steamrollered into me.’
DiDonato described her choice of arias for the album, ‘It was so hard to cut out brilliant masterpieces, I wanted to show light and dark, and in every aria by say, Handel and Purcell, they have that quality, that shade of grey. All of us have access to that light and dark and we are at a point where we can choose which we nurture.’
James Jolly, BBC 3 presenter and former editor of Gramophone, led the evening’s questions.
Matt Peacock described his journey from homeless support worker, opera critic and Clore Leadership Fellow to running the hugely successful Streetwise Opera, a charity that uses music to help people who have experienced homelessness make positive changes in their lives.
Awarded an MBE for services to music and homelessness in 2011, Peacock described his initiative as a reaction to the famous quip by the Tory minister, Sir George Young ‘The homeless? Aren’t they the people you step over when you come out of the opera?’.
Addressing this lack of identity Peacock talked movingly of the challenge of homelessness and the work his charity does to give meaning and dignity to lives torn apart. He said ‘With music you are not the sum of your problems.’
With the new global network One Voice, his work is growing around the world bringing the arts and homelessness sector together through exchanges in policy and practice. ‘We need more conversations like these, more activism. As artists we are all activists, we can choose how far to take that.’
Anis Barnat agreed, stressing that political support is vital for the work he does. Founded this year, El Sistema Greece teaches music to children as young as four years old in the many refugee camps there. ‘There have been 1 million migrants through Greece alone, 2700 children are currently living in camps with no structure, no long-term plan, in an ever-changing situation. The El Sistema programme gives them a discipline, a bringing together of the many different nationalities and a way of sharing the experience.’ The project gathered both migrants and Western people to help the integration of the refugee children to the mainstream society.
DiDonato revisits Sing Sing every year, ‘It is so enriching. It’s a part of my life now. I am able to bring this to people for whom it never existed. It is so easy to lose touch as an opera singer. When I walk out on that stage I carry the inspiration and confidence I have found in this incredibly significant work. To the people who have paid hundreds of pounds for a ticket in the opera houses I say, ‘don’t take this lightly’.
Audience member, Dame Vivienne Westwood ended the Q and A with a profound and powerful plea for the arts.
After the Q&A, the stage was reset and the audience fell silent as one of the world’s most celebrated opera singers Joyce DiDonato gave an extraordinary and intimate performance of Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ to a room at once unified and transfixed.
The Pureland Series at China Exchange curates innovative programmes by inviting inspirational speakers and like-minded person to share their vision of a world grounded in compassion, empowerment, creativity and spirituality.
Image Credit: Fabrice Rizatto