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One Night Only: The Streets Meet The Opera House

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One Night Only: The Streets Meet The Opera House

Music Makers

One Night Only: The Streets Meet The Opera House

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Texas, football is a way to explain a lot of things, and since this next story is out of Texas, we'll start with football. Imagine trying to coach a team where every week you've got a whole new roster of players. That's essentially the challenge that Jonathon Palant has been dealing with, except his players are singers in a choir, they're from a homeless shelter and the members change every week. The group called the Dallas Street Quire recently performed with world-famous mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade to an audience that was standing room only. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has the story.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: The Dallas City Performance Hall is packed - sold out. As the late arrivals 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 of humanity 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, it's shaky.

(SOUNDBITE OF DALLAS STREET CHOIR PERFORMANCE)

DALLAS STREET CHOIR: (Singing) There's a place for us. A time and place for us.

GOODWYN: 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.

JONATHON PALANT: Hey y'all. OK, good morning. So here's what we're going to do today. I know that we've got some new folks but...

GOODWYN: Veteran Dallas choral director Jonathan Palant stands at the front of the room, two long rows of homeless facing him. Palant has about five regulars. The other 20 singers are constantly changing.

PALANT: Everyone - good job, everybody. And...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing).

GOODWYN: Palant used to do this once a year at Christmas - a couple of hours of rehearsal, and then they 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: Every week is a new challenge.

GOODWYN: Palant says he's practiced with 57 different homeless singers over the last 12 weeks.

PALANT: Every week is a new chorus. It's difficult. It's difficult to be consistent in our musical preparation. My goal, however, though, is that we just continue to get better.

GOODWYN: Russell 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.

RUSSELL RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I'm still nervous every day. Every day I get nervous 'cause the date's getting closer and, you know - and, well, I don't want to make a fool out of myself out there in front of everybody.

GOODWYN: 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.

RODRIGUEZ: I haven't been in a tux since I got married. That was a long, long time ago.

GOODWYN: A month later, Rodriguez is wearing his tux, squinting against the klieg lights while anchoring the baritone.

(SOUNDBITE OF DALLAS STREET CHOIR PERFORMANCE)

STREET CHOIR: (Singing) There's a place for us. Some time and place for us.

GOODWYN: Suddenly, a world-famous opera singer appears on the stage, seemingly out of nowhere. Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade walks into the middle of the Dallas Street Choir and puts her arms around two of the singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DALLAS STREET CHOIR PERFORMANCE)

FREDERICA VON STADE: (Singing) There's a place for us. Somewhere a place for us. Peace and quiet and open air wait for us somewhere.

GOODWYN: Under the 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-soprano, the Dallas Street Choir finds its stride.

(SOUNDBITE OF DALLAS STREET CHOIR PERFORMANCE)

STREET CHOIR: (Singing) Hold my hand and we're halfway there. Hold my hand and I'll take you there somehow, someday, somewhere.

(APPLAUSE)

GOODWYN: 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 is and the choir CREDO. Surrounded by a hundred trained voices, they happily performed the American premiere of "Street Requiem," which was written just last year by a trio of Australian composers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DALLAS STREET CHOIR PERFORMANCE)

STREET CHOIR: (Singing).

GOODWYN: 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.

(APPLAUSE)

GOODWYN: Backstage, the members of the Dallas Street Choir celebrated, laughing and taking pictures of themselves in their tuxedos and long dresses. The transformation - frankly, astonishing.

RODRIGUEZ: Now y'all got to smile now. That's good. Right there, right there.

GOODWYN: Russell Rodriguez looks so proud his bowtie threatens to pop off.

RODRIGUEZ: I thought it was awesome, man. I think we pulled it off, and tonight I'm going to go enjoy a room in the motel and sleep late in the morning. (Laughter).

GOODWYN: Congratulations.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, man. Thanks for coming out.

GOODWYN: It was an evening they said they'd remember the rest of their lives. For a night, two dozen of Dallas's homeless 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. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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