Three days before the Dallas Street Choir leaves for New York, its traveling members are assembled and listening intently to choir director Jonathan Palant. He makes an announcement about yet one more phase of preparation: haircuts at 12:45 for anybody who wants one.
When you're organizing singers who are homeless for a performance at Carnegie Hall, arrangements have to be particularly thorough. However, a glance around the room at the Dallas Stew Pot — the city's homeless shelter and the choir's rehearsal spot — quickly shows that no one in the Street Choir appears offended. The haircuts are one more piece of evidence that this performance is real, and that they're being taken seriously.
The Dallas Street Choir is a group composed of the city's homeless. Though its lineup has varied over the years, over time it's become a more concrete unit, and 25 of its most dedicated singers — including some with mental illness and addiction issues — have been picked to tour the East Coast.
Its stop Wednesday night in New York is historic: Never before in its 126-year history has Carnegie Hall hosted a musical ensemble solely comprising performers who are homeless. And what's more: Tickets have been donated so hundreds of New York City's homeless, from all five boroughs, can attend.
The sound the Street Choir will bring to the hallowed venue is, Palant freely admits, "scrappy."
"We acknowledge that," the veteran choral director says. "But it's unbridled, passionate — filled with love and joy and uniqueness."
The Street Choir's sound is understandably rawer, Palant points out, because "you're teaching the most basic musicianship skills — loud, soft, slow, fast, long, short. You're teaching folks who have a hard time staying awake because they spent the previous night on a heating grate outside."
Deborah Scott is one of the singers who made the travel team. "There are so many professional singers that would kill to be on the stage at Carnegie Hall," she says. "Through the choir, I'm going places that I never would've imagined myself being a year or two years ago. Never. I'm so grateful."
For decades, Scott was a customer service representative for the transit authority in Houston. But after a downsizing, followed by divorce and a move to Dallas that turned out to be a mistake, Scott found herself homeless.
Though she's recently found a room with the help of professionals at the Dallas Stew Pot, she still returns for the Street Choir. Becoming homeless was a blow to Scott's self-esteem, but singing in the Street Choir has given her a reason to get up in the morning.
"We are coming together over our love of singing and our desire to show that there's more to being down and out and homeless than just sitting on the street corners all day," she says.
Scott and the rest of the Street Choir will be joined at Carnegie Hall by some of the brightest stars from Broadway and the opera. These include composer Jake Heggie, who has has arranged music and will accompany the choir on piano. Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade will join the singers again, after she performed with them in Dallas two years ago.
Heggie, whose opera Great Scott was next door at the Winspear Opera House, was in attendance that night in Dallas. "[My cast and I] were in the back row listening to this group of people who don't have a voice or face and we were all weeping," he remembers.
The Street Choir's performance reminded the celebrated composer of something he'd started to lose track of in New York City: why he started doing this in the first place.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Tonight, for the first time, a group of homeless singers is performing at Carnegie Hall. The Dallas Street Choir takes the stage with some of the biggest names in opera and Broadway, and hundreds of New York City's homeless from all five boroughs are attending. NPR's Wade Goodwyn was at the rehearsal.
JONATHAN PALANT: OK, y'all, wrap it up.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: It's 10:45 in the morning at the city's homeless shelter, the Dallas Stewpot, and the traveling members of the Dallas Street Choir take their seats.
PALANT: Ricardo, would you take one, pass it out to the first row, please? OK, so listen up.
GOODWYN: Three days before they leave for New York, Street Choir Director Jonathan Palant is busy. When you're organizing singers who are homeless for a performance at Carnegie Hall, preparations are a little more thorough.
PALANT: So at 12:45 today, I've got somebody coming to give haircuts to anybody that would like one. We have six on the roster right now. If anybody else would like a haircut...
GOODWYN: Glance around the room, and nobody appears offended. For the singers, the haircuts are one more example that this is real, that they're being taken seriously. But before the coiffing comes the melodic grooming.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)
PALANT: Get words, and...
DALLAS STREET CHOIR: (Singing) Everybody look around 'cause there's reason to rejoice, you see. Everybody come out, and let's commence to singing joyfully.
PALANT: Sure, it's a scrappy sound. We acknowledge that. But it's unbridled, passionate, filled with love and joy and uniqueness.
GOODWYN: Palant is a veteran choral director who mixes his talent for teaching music with compassion, sometimes a little therapy, all while demanding attention and effort.
PALANT: You're teaching the most basic musicianship skills - loud, soft, slow, fast, long, short. You're teaching folks to have a hard time staying awake because they spent the previous night on a heating grate outside.
DALLAS STREET CHOIR: (Singing) Can't you feel a brand new day? Can't you feel a brand new day?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.
GOODWYN: Twenty-five of the street choir's most dedicated singers, including some with mental illness and addiction issues, have been chosen to go to New York.
DEBORAH SCOTT: Oh, my goodness. I was so excited. There are so many professional singers that would kill to be on the stage at Carnegie Hall.
GOODWYN: Deborah Scott is one of those who made the travel team.
SCOTT: Through the choir, I'm going places that I never would have imagined myself being a year or two years ago, never. I'm so grateful.
GOODWYN: Scott is an example that the line between middle class and homeless life in America is not as thick as we might imagine. For decades, she was a customer service representative for the transit authority in Houston. But after a downsizing followed by divorce, a move to Dallas that turned out to be a mistake, Scott found herself with nowhere to turn.
SCOTT: When I experienced homelessness, my ego took a hit. It's kind of hard, especially when you've been used to working in corporate America and, you know, living the dream, so to speak, and then find yourself on the downside of that. It can really damage your self-esteem.
GOODWYN: With the assistance from the professionals at the Dallas Stewpot, Deborah Scott recently found a room. But she still comes back here for Street Choir.
SCOTT: Singing for me is my reason for getting up in the morning, so we are coming together over our love of singing and our desire to show that there's more to being down and out and homeless than just sitting on the street corners all day.
GOODWYN: Scott and the rest of the Street Choir will be joined at Carnegie Hall by some of the brightest stars from Broadway and the opera. Opera composer Jake Heggie has arranged music and will accompany the choir on piano. And beloved mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade will join the singers again. Two years ago, she performed in Dallas with the Street Choir to sing, among other things...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FREDERICA VON STADE: (Singer) Somewhere there's a place for us, somewhere a place for us. Peace and quiet and open air...
GOODWYN: Composer Jake Heggie was in the hall that night in Dallas. His opera "Moby Dick" was next door at the Winspear Opera House. So Heggie and the cast popped over to watch.
JAKE HEGGIE: And here we were in the back row, listening to this group of people who don't have a voice or a face. And we were all weeping.
GOODWYN: Heggie said that performance reminded him of something he'd begun to lose track of in New York City - why the heck he was doing this in the first place. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DALLAS STREET CHOIR: (Singing) There's some place for us, some time and place for us. Hold my hand, and we're halfway there. Hold my hand, and I'll take...
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, as in an earlier Web version of this story, the opera by composer Jake Heggie that was being performed at the Winspear Opera House is reported to have been Moby Dick. In fact, it was Heggie’s opera Great Scott.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.