The University of Rhode Island and the Department of Music welcomed the performers of the Tenderloin Opera Company to the main lounge of the Hillside Hall Dormitory as part of the “Real Conversation Series” last Wednesday, Feb. 28. A Providence-based homeless advocacy music and theater group, the group was led by URI faculty members Dr. Kirsten Volness and Dr. Jacob Richman. The Tenderloin Opera Company “works to create collaborative performances based on real experiences and issues that affect the homeless community in Providence.”
Through a performance of “The Chronicles of KP: The Monkey, The Angel and the Skunky Weed,” the groups seventh original opera, they tell a humorously absurd yet relevant tale of life on the streets. The story highlights the frustrations of public transportation, corrupt politicians, the destruction of art and culture, the fallout of drug epidemics and the yearning for safer communities. After the performance was a post-performance discussion, through which the group hoped to spark on-campus conversations about art and activism, as well as shatter some oft-held misconceptions about the homeless.
According to Volness, one of the organizers and creative directors of the company and professor of music composition and theory at URI, the Tenderloin Opera Company was originally founded in a San Francisco neighborhood. The Opera Company was named after this town by playwright and activist Erik Ehn, along with several colleagues in the late 1990s. The program found its way to its current home in Providence, Rhode Island, through Dr. Jacob Richman, a musician and professor of art and film at URI and an associated of Ehn’s who he passed the organization onto.
Since moving to Providence, the company has held weekly writing workshops and group discussions on Fridays at 1:30 p.m. at the Matthewson Street Church in the downtown area. The invitation extends to everyone, especially to currently and formerly homeless members of the Providence community, as well as those who support them. The mantra that governs each of their meetings is “always free, always an hour or less, always free cookies.”
“It’s sort of a therapy session too,” said Volness. “We always check in at the beginning- how was your week? What are you thinking about? How do you feel? I think it’s good for everybody’s mental health just to have a community.”
It is at these weekly group sessions that Richman, Volness and the other attendees work together, writing and composing original and unique songs for their yearly opera. They take inspiration from their own experiences and hardships. The motto the group goes by is “wrong and strong,” and so no subject matter is off the table when composing these operas, and the results are always honest, emotional and revelatory.
As of now, the group is nearing completion on their latest opera which is currently untitled. This latest project confronts issues revolving around hardships posed to Providence residents, especially those living on the streets, by the policies of former mayor Joseph Paolino. Currently, there are plans to unveil this performance on May 5 or 12.
For more information on future performance dates, as well as how to reach out to and support the Tenderloin Opera Company, visit www.jacob-richman.com or find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TenderloinOperaCompany/.