Positive

How do you turn someone’s personal, life-changing event into a thirty minute opera?

Positive is a short opera in twelve short scenes with text taken from three interviews between October 2015 and July 2016 with a young HIV positive man originating from Manchester.

The interviewee and I first met several years ago, before he was diagnosed as HIV positive, and he told me about his diagnosis in spring 2013. At the time he was in his first year of university and he was still only eighteen. It was a harrowing few months watching him struggling with his diagnosis, struggling with university and social life, and just generally struggling with himself. Over time he became more adjusted to his new life as a HIV positive man and, sensing a need in him to share his story, I approached him about this project.

After transcribing the interviews my challenge as a composer was how to approach this very naturalistic text: which of his stories to tell? What to cut in order condense it into half an hour’s worth of opera? How much do I edit his actual words so they communicate his thoughts and feelings clearly? I felt I had two options: adapt and manipulate the stories and text I had transcribed into a clear, linear and straight forward narrative, or, take fragments of the text in their purest form and throw them at the manuscript paper. I eventually opted for the latter. The challenge, I found, of sharing someone’s story, especially someone you know well, is attempting creating a genuine portrayal of that person, rather than a sanitised, carefully edited and essentially, false representation of that person. Verbatim theatre is hugely exciting as a process because it shows the audience the fallibility of human beings: we contradict ourselves, we misuse language, we let our emotions affect how intelligible we are. Of course I’d be naïve to claim that this work was entirely unedited, otherwise the opera would be of a Wagnerian length, however the fragments presented in this piece, minus the introduction, are almost entirely unaltered fragments from the original transcript.  Stutters, re-starts, mistakes, pauses are 

completely adhered to, as well as the pitch and rhythm of the speech. This, I feel, means I have preserved the character of my interviewee, as well as presenting the most pertinent elements and stories of our interviews. 

The loose narrative of the opera takes us from an introduction to the interviewee and his relationship with his family, through to the moments he was diagnosed, to his changing relationship with his HIV status, ending with his looking to the future. Each scene is almost a entirely unaltered fragments from the original transcript. Stutters, re-starts, mistakes, pauses are completely adhered to, as well as the pitch and rhythm of the speech. This, I feel, means I have preserved the character of my interviewee, as well as presenting the most pertinent elements and stories of our interviews. The loose narrative of the opera takes us from an introduction to the interviewee and his relationship with his family, through to the moments he was diagnosed, through to his changing relationship with his HIV status, ending with his looking to the future. Each scene is almost a mini opera in itself and the twelve scenes are twelve different snapshots of his life over the last five or so years, not necessarily told in order. The result is an episodic thirty minutes of music theatre which mimics the discontinuous nature of our lives.

Thankfully being HIV positive is no longer the death sentence it once was, but there is still stigma surrounding living with the virus, for example the recent homophobic reporting in some factions of the media on the NHS and PReP. It is important to continue to document the experiences of HIV positive people and hopefully this work goes somewhere towards removing the stigma surrounding living with HIV. Although living with HIV is the subject of this work, it can also be read on a much broader level. It documents how we face life-changing events and how they change our outlook on life. Whoever you are and whatever experience you have of the world, this opera is a window to what it is to be human. 

Michael Betteridge

Anna Braithwaite