What do a lifeguard, a homeless girl, a social worker and a wine merchant have in common?
The answer is as surprising as they are diverse, because they are all mad about Opera.
They are singing in the chorus of Birmingham Opera Company, which is a company like no other.
No wonder its slogan is “not what you expect from opera”.
Formed in 1987, it involves hundreds of volunteers in its productions, with acting and singing choruses made up of people aged 16 to 80 from all walks of life.
With no audition process, anyone can take part. Many volunteers return year after year but the company aims to take on 50 per cent new recruits for each production.
There is a particular emphasis on building confidence and self-esteem for the young unemployed.
Birmingham Opera Company (BOC) is also unusual for not staging productions in a formal setting but taking it to the people in quirky urban locations, including shopping centres, former factories, a bank and an ice rink.
In 2012, the award-winning Mittwoch Aus Licht involved a string quartet flying over the city in helicopters.
Its latest production, from April 3, is The Ice Break by Michael Tippett, directed by Graham Vick.
It involves a cast of international soloists, the CBSO and a chorus of 150 singing and acting volunteers from the local community.
BOC has been awarded a £325,000 National Lottery-funded Exceptional Award from Arts Council England to stage it.
ACE area director Peter Knott said: “This programme gives us an opportunity to invest in projects of national significance. The Ice Break looks set to be a spectacular production.”
First produced at the Royal Opera House in 1977, it features a Russian dissident who has spent 20 years in a Russian prison camp.
Graham Vick said: “The Ice Break was ahead of its time.
“In our current climate of intercultural, political and economic turbulence, the time is right for reassessment.
“BOC shares Tippett’s belief that opera should be socially inclusive and his belief that every artist has a social responsibility.
“His visionary masterpiece couldn’t be more relevant to the modern world. Opera for our times, written and sung in English.”
It’s being staged in a huge tin-roofed, graffiti-covered warehouse in Digbeth. Portakabins have been brought in as dressing rooms and the wardrobe department.
The singing chorus includes John Mullings from Kings Heath who is a lifeguard at Harborne swimming pool and has been in every production since Othello in 2009.
Unemployed Cruise Norman, 22, picked up a BOC leaflet in the Perry Barr Job Centre which said “Do you want to be in a show, no experience necessary”. He turned up hoping to learn to sing Nessun Dorma.
Robert Edward from Sandwell trained at Rambert School of Dance and performed in the original 1977 production of The Ice Break at the Royal Opera House. Now he’s a social worker.
Tim Robbins is a marketing manager for the oldest provincial wine merchant’s in England, Nickolls and Perks in Stourbridge, which has been going since 1797. He went along to see his wife perform and loved it so much he joined himself.
Razan Madani is an 18 year-old student who came here from Syria two years ago and heard a tannoy announcement at her Northfield college for BOC volunteers.
She says: “The confidence boost that I get from performing and mixing with such a wide variety of people is amazing. I love the fact you are not judged at all but just encouraged to sing better and better.”
At 16, Leela Docherty, who’s studying at Solihull College, is the youngest chorus member.
Only slightly older at 20 is Holli Parchment, also from Solihull and currently living at St Basil’s hostel for the homeless after moving out because of conflict with her family.
She works one day a week as a teaching assistant at the Pauline Quirke drama academy in Solihull and dreams of becoming a performer – but she never thought she would be singing opera.
She says: “Before this experience I never had any interest in opera at all. I always thought it was for old people! And that it was completely over the top, with women singing in big ballgowns.
“But I discovered that BOC is totally different. The music is beautiful, not boring at all, and everyone is so down-to-earth. Until they sing, you can’t tell the difference between the chorus and the soloists.
“I’ve met so many different kinds of people, it’s really wicked.
“I can’t understand every single word but I am learning to love opera. My friends are surprised I am doing this but I’ve told them all to come and watch.”
The volunteers perform with professional principals, which this year includes baritone Ross Ramgobin, who is nominated in the Young Artist category in the 2015 International Opera Awards.
Six out of the 10 soloists are from ethnic minority backgrounds.
BOC has partnerships with Sifa Fireside homeless charity, Celebrating Sanctuary Birmingham (a charity raising awareness of refugees in the arts), the CBSO and Joseph Chamberlain College.
As well as its one major annual show, it also holds up to 30 small performances a year across the city including Opera While You Shop at One Stop Shopping Centre and the Bullring.
Khovanskygate: A National Enquiry, based on Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, was staged last year in a huge, six-pole, 200ft by 130ft tent in Birmingham’s Cannon Hill Park.
Graham Vick admits: “I feel pressure to do something better and different which takes people by surprise, but that’s what pushes me to achieve.”
The Ice Break is staged on April 3,4,7,8 and 9 at the B12 Warehouse in Charles Henry Street, Digbeth. For tickets ring 0121 246 6644 or go to www.birminghamopera.org.uk