A former pupil of TVMS has been lavished with praise in the press recently for her work with asylum seekers and the homeless. Emily Smith, an opera singer who initially received lessons from Tees Valley Music Service in 1997, has been working with MIMA (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art) and conducting the Middlesbrough Homeless Choir. Onlookers stop to listen, overwhelmed by the impressive sound, as the voices prepare for a concert as part of the Streetwise Opera project.
Streetwise is an award-winning charity that helps people who are, or have been, homeless to stage operas, and singer Emily is readying them for a concert in Middlesbrough Town Hall. With her husband, tenor singer David Pisaro, Emily 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”, Emily 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. Ms Smith continued: “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 MAP sessions, we work with 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 own difficult lives.”
Emily has always had a passion for music. Her family are musical, her music teacher (Mr Lewis) supported her to achieving a Grade 8 in piano, singing and cello, before going to study at the Guildhall School of Music in London, where she met David. After two years working in London, they decided to move back up to the North East so they could work in a less competitive and crowded part of the country. They quickly set up the Sage’s Sing Up project, where Emily traveled around primary schools, encouraging teachers to set up school choirs.
Speaking to the Darlington & Stockton Times, she said she wanted to bring the experience of singing to places where there isn’t much music as well as making the lives of those less fortunate better. She taught opera to people with learning difficulties which eventually culminated with a massive concert at Bridlington Spa, written by Lee Hall, the writer of Billy Elliot.
Emily says there are no obstacles to prevent people from singing. ” 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. We worked with both the youth choirs and children’s choirs of Andalusia, as well as performing in concerts and recitals ourselves.”
She wants to expand her work with asylum seekers and homeless people and recently 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.”
The homeless and asylum-seeking choirs performed at Middlesbrough Town Hall on Friday 1st March at 7PM on an evening that was filled with joyful and refreshing music which cut through the stuffiness of traditional opera. It also included the premiere of After the Storm, an opera piece created by composer Hayley Jenkins. Emily was also one of the teachers at Stokesley Song Fest over the weekend of 15-17 February.