Interview with librettist/poet Jill Battson
This week I interviewed Jill Battson, librettist for the new piece Dark Star Requiem, a world première from Tapestry New Opera & Luminato, the Toronto Festival of Arts & Creativity. It premières on June 11 & 12, 2010 at 8pm at The Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall. Tapestry describes it as ‘a dramatic oratorio on the history of HIV-AIDS in North America and Africa. In this marriage of content and form, poet Jill Battson and composer Andrew Staniland trace the twenty-five year history of AIDS from its origins to the present day. This evocative, poetic concert work interlaces such topics as ecology, myth, politics, and family. While this text includes fragments from the Latin Mass for the Dead, the overall perspective is humanistic rather than religious.’ Being a linguist, I looked forward to having a conversation with someone who loves the texture of language. We ended up discussing the production, the subject matter and opera in general.
Jill Battson is currently the Poet Laureate for the town of Cobourg, and a busy writer of poetry in her own and others’ artistic projects. Her collaboration with Staniland came about during a 2005 Tapestry LibLab; their vision of the opera has not wavered much, including having the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Gryphon Trio perform, amongst other musicians.
I asked about Jill’s use of excerpts from the Latin Requiem Mass text; it struck me as potentially contradictory for a text which was not only humanistic in worldview but also hopeful in tone. But she has cleverly used phrases from the Mass so that they morph into positive visions and symbols of hope, such as things that are part of the collective unconscious (I won’t introduce any spoilers!). Furthermore, I found this most poignant: she said that she felt that a requiem for the 25 million people who have died of AIDS was long overdue. [Amen!]
Regarding the staging, Battson and Staniland envision a stark, austere setting that will likely include video projections of text and images (not surtitles). They have always worked with the view of it as an extended choral piece of about 20 voices, plus the soloists. I hope this is the final product as Tapestry has always used video effectively.
We talked about HIV-AIDS and how it has changed in the public perception, having had different issues in different eras, from the earliest paranoia and misinformation, to current Western apathy in terms of risks and fundraising/research, to the complex questions around it in Africa—regarding both its origins and the current problems involved. Here, we are back to a state of misinformation because diagnosis and treatment are relatively easy to accommodate now.
As such, the hour-long piece, which includes 19 poems, aims to be ‘unrelentingly disturbing’, bringing the disease back into the fore, but with the dichotomy of also being hopeful and redemptive. Jill is pleased that it is scored for mezzos and baritones, whose voices she feels are able to effectively articulate the language she has crafted. She feels this is an important piece, and her pride in and passion for it is evident. It would be easy to write tritely or sentimentally about HIV-AIDS; I am glad this piece has a thoughtful and accomplished author. But that’s what you get when you don’t plunk your kids in front of an idiot box and get them to read books instead. Sorry, parental soapbox slip…
I am grateful to Jill for the time she spent in conversation with me and am anticipating a soulful piece to sink my teeth into for a post-show review. For tickets to Dark Star Requiem, purchases may be made via 416-872-1111 / 1-866-577-4277 ticketmaster.ca or 416-408-0208 Royal Conservatory of Music.
Also, a heads up for you literary folk: the libretto with other poetry will be available in a trade format for purchase at the show; there will also be a special limited edition of the work. I’m bringing plastic!