The Dallas Street Choir performed in T-shirts, then changed into formalwear for the Street Requiem. Baritone Russell Rodriguez is in front, far right, in an orange T-shirt.Courtesy of Mark Mullaney
The Dallas City Performance Hall is packed, sold out. As the late
arrivers scramble down the aisles looking for their seats, two dozen
homeless singers quietly walk out of the wings and line up across the
stage single file. It's a thin band stretched across a large expanse of
stage and they look fairly terrified. The orchestra plays the opening
bars of "Somewhere" from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story.
The house goes completely quiet, a sense of anxiety in the air. The
Dallas Street Choir has been practicing for months, but as they begin,
If they're still a bit wobbly, it's nothing
compared to before. The road to the performing stage began last year at
the city's largest homeless shelter, The Stewpot.
Veteran Dallas choral director Jonathan Palant stands at the front of
the room with two long rows of homeless people facing him. Palant has
about five regulars. The other 20 singers are constantly changing.
used to do this once a year, at Christmas — a couple of hours of
rehearsal and then they'd put on a nice little singing concert at the
huge Christmas meal for the homeless. But now he's trying for something
much more ambitious. And risky. Palant says he's practiced with 57
different homeless singers over the last 12 weeks.
is a new challenge," Palant says. "Every week it's a new chorus. It's
difficult, it's difficult to be consistent in our musical preparation.
My goal however is that we just continue to get better."
Rodriguez is one of the regulars. A 53-year-old day laborer from
Sweetwater, Texas, he lost his apartment six months ago. So, for the
time being, he sleeps in the shelter and cuts lawns and works
construction to accumulate a security deposit and a few months' rent.
Rodriguez joined the Dallas Street Choir because he sang in high school
and wants to perform in front of an audience one more time. He's taking
it very seriously.
"Yeah, I'm nervous every day," Rodriguez
says. "I get nervous 'cause the date's getting closer and I don't want
to make a fool out of myself in front of everybody."
Composer Jonathon Welch (left), mezzo Frederica von Stade and conductor Jonathan Palant after the U.S. premiere of Street Requiem. Courtesy of Mark Mullaney
Hotel rooms have been donated and the women will sing in
custom-made evening gowns, the men in tuxes. Rodriguez's eyes light up
at the prospect — a night on the town, the star of the show.
"I mean, I haven't been in a tux since I got married," Rodriguez says. "That was a long, long time ago."
month later, Rodriguez is wearing his tux, squinting against the klieg
lights while anchoring the baritones. Suddenly a world-famous opera
singer appears on the stage seemingly out of nowhere. Mezzo-soprano
Frederica von Stade walks into the in the middle of the Dallas Street
Choir and puts her arms around two of the singers.
spell of von Stade's voice, the hall is transformed. There's suddenly a
lot of surreptitious wiping of eyes. Must be a little dusty in here.
Backed by the power of the great mezzo, the Dallas Street Choir finds
its stride. It was a turning point. The crowd loved it and everyone,
performers and audience, relaxed.
In the second act, the Dallas Street Choir was joined by the Richland College Chamber Singers and the local ecumenical choir CREDO; surrounded by a hundred trained voices, they happily performed the American premiere of Street Requiem,
which was written just last year by Australian composers Kathleen
McGuire, Andy Payne and Jonathon Welch. The 10-movement piece honors the
world's homeless who've died disregarded on the pavement and in the
dirt. When it was over, the audience offered a long standing ovation.
the members of the Dallas Street Choir celebrated, laughing and taking
group pictures of themselves in their tuxedos and long dresses. The
transformation was frankly astonishing. Rodriguez looked so proud his
bow tie threatened to pop off.
Members of the Dallas Street Choir in formalwear.Courtesy of Mark Mullaney
"I thought it was awesome, man. I think we pulled it off and
tonight I'm going to enjoy a room in the motel and sleep late in the
morning," Rodriguez said, laughing.
It was an evening, they
said, they'd remember the rest of their lives. For a night, two dozen of
Dallas' homeless people were lifted from the city's cold streets and
sidewalks to bask in the warm glow of spotlights. For the usual
hostility and indifference to their fate, they were traded love, respect
and goodwill. One performance only.