Three Letters: raising awareness of HIV in Cardiff

1 December 2021

In 2020 Cardiff became a Fast Track City and joined a global partnership of cities working towards the aim of zero HIV transmissions and zero HIV stigma by 2030. As a Cardiff based company, we at Welsh National Opera wanted to use our specialism of exploring emotion and stories through song and performance, to offer a platform to highlight the experiences of people living with HIV, taking those stories to a wider audience.

Due to enormous medical advances, there is a new, much less tragic story to be told around HIV, which offers an optimistic vision of life with this virus. If on effective treatment, many people living with HIV can expect to live as long as their peers who do not have HIV and suppresses their viral load meaning that they can’t pass the virus on.

Inspired by the AIDS Quilt Songbook project which began in America in 1992, Three Letters aims to capture the voices and stories of people living with HIV in Cardiff, Wales and the UK today, and raise community awareness about Cardiff’s campaign towards 2030.

I hope that the project will help to support a shift in attitudes towards HIV and add to a rich tapestry of creative responses that show how things are changing over time

Mercy Shibemba, activist

The project began in September 2021 and saw our facilitators, composer Michael Betteridge, singer Sian Cameron and activist Mercy Shibemba, worked with 160 year 10 pupils from Cardiff West Community High School. Through a series of workshops, lectures and song writing sessions, the pupils’ understanding of HIV developed, which led to the creation of the lyrics and music for their song, ‘We learn, we know, we understand’.

Music gives additional weight and importance to what we’re communicating and not only do audiences listen differently when ideas and stories are communicated through song, but it allows us to access emotions and feelings that text alone cannot

Michael Betteridge, composer

The song has a beautifully uplifting narrative of allyship and empathy. Listen to the piece here.

Michael Graham, WNO Project Coordinator said: ‘Similar to the 1980s, issues such as fear, stigma, misinformation, and testing are very present in all our lives now, and it was revealing how a discussion about the students’ feelings and experiences with Covid over the past couple years was particularly effective for helping them to understand anxiety, stigma, but also the importance of empathy and friendship. In some ways, the song they’ve created – with lyrics like ‘times have changed, acceptance is here’ and ‘you are not alone, society is changing’ – is about much more than HIV awareness: it’s about showing allyship and support for any stigmatised person or group.’

In addition to our core workshop team, we have received tremendous support from Fast Track Cardiff. Historian Dr Daryl Leeworthy helped our team, and the pupils gain a better understanding of the history of HIV in Cardiff, while actor and writer Nathaniel J Hall (It’s a Sin) was a great source of advice and support, and generously allowed us to use resources from his ‘ACTUP+Live’ project. He also co-delivered a workshop with Mercy Shibemba where they talked about their life stories with the students.