Cryptic art fuses opera and AIDS

This is going to get confusing. Really confusing. Currently, the Yukon Arts Centre gallery is hosting a multimedia exhibit. It’s odd.

This is going to get confusing.

Really confusing.

Currently, the Yukon Arts Centre gallery is hosting a multimedia exhibit.

It’s odd.

It is an opera, a big jar of colourful pills and a black-and-white filmstrip playing mirror images that really aren’t.

Toss in cryptic concepts, palindromes and, well… you get the idea.

Called Yukon Figs, the piece is part of a larger operatic installation dubbed Fig Trees.

It was inspired by Gertrude Stein’s book Prepare for Saints, and the opera that followed, Four Saints in Three Acts by conservative American composer Steven Watson.

But Yukon Figs is about AIDS in Africa, not saints.

Confused yet?

“We didn’t want to be didactic,” said Toronto co-creator and composer David Wall.

So, he and filmmaker John Greyson created a libretto using snippets of Stein’s work that read as palindromes.

“Then we ran the original score upside down and backwards,” said Wall.

And actors mirroring each other’s movements sing Stein’s lyrics backwards in French, German and Spanish simultaneously, he said.

“It’s a language game where words and music infiltrate each other,” said Greyson.

In the past, the pair has been criticized for being too cryptic, said Wall.

“Being too didactic or too cryptic is always a problem,” he said.

“I think Fig Trees is more balanced.”

But even the title is obscure.

“In Stein’s opera, St. Theresa collapses on the road, and a stranger feeds her figs and revives her,” said Greyson.

“And this reverberated with us — figs became our pills.”

Plus, figs don’t cure AIDS, he said.

“And this alludes to Africa, where political leaders ban AIDS drugs and claim garlic and lemon juice are cures,” he said.

The opera ends with a metaphorical fig tree sporting maple leaves.

Get it? Maple leaves. On a fig tree — which won’t cure AIDS, but that represents pills that … oh, forget it.

Yukon Figs is cryptic to the point of being impenetrable.

The lyrics are unintelligible, the music is inspired by little-used late Renaissance choral techniques and the plot is hard to follow.

Still, the artists’ ambition is to tell an important story.

The opera is about African AIDS activist Zackie Achmat, who stopped taking his drugs because the medicine wasn’t available to all Africans.

“He could access drugs, but on principle he wouldn’t take them,” said Greyson.

Achmat battled the drug companies and the African government, but was wary of media attention.

“He wanted to do it collectively; he didn’t want to be seen as a martyr or hero,” said Greyson, who visited Achmat numerous times during his 10-year struggle.

As the years wore on, Achmat’s condition worsened.

Then, in 2003, after AIDS treatment became available in South Africa, Achmat felt he’d logged enough victories against governments and the drug companies, and began taking his pills again.

However, access to AIDS treatment is still a huge problem in Africa, said Greyson.

“The government promised a full rollout of drugs, but has found lots of ways to procrastinate, as governments do,” he said.

“So the fight continues.”

“An aspect of our work is political activism,” said Wall, who hopes the piece will raise awareness about the African AIDS epidemic.

But the full operatic installation has only been displayed once, in an Oakville, Ontario, gallery, where each scene was screened in a different venue — inside a minivan, on the stairs and at a sushi bar complete with chef.

“The next step is to make a video version of the opera, to get it out to a broader audience,” said Greyson.

But without the props, in this case the huge candy jar of pills, the piece might be even harder to follow.

“We found the pills in a dumpster,” said Wall with a wink.

Representative of the AIDS cocktail mix, most are actually vitamins and minerals, he added.

“But there’s some valium in there somewhere,” joked Greyson.

“Let’s find it.”

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