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Welsh National Opera takes inspiration from Hollywood in video to mark World Aids Day

01 Dec 2023 4 minute read
Camilla Roberts – LaMammaMortaStill

Welsh National Opera have released a short film to mark World Aids Day, inspired by an iconic scene from the Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington movie Philadelphia.

In a memorable sequence from the Oscar award-winning movie, an aria from the opera Andrea Chenier – ‘La mamma morta’ – underscores Tom Hanks’ character Andrew Beckett struggling with societal stigma and health problems brought about by his diagnosis of HIV.

Thirty years on, WNO’s latest release features a brand-new recording of the aria playing over recreated scenes that better encapsulate the perspectives of people living with HIV today.


The aria is sung by soprano Camilla Roberts, with accompaniment from WNO Orchestra and a new spoken-word text written by Andrew Loretto, performed by Nathaniel J Hall (star of Channel 4’s hit drama It’s a Sin).

Nathaniel said: “Philadelphia exists in a canon of work about HIV and AIDS – along with Angels in America and Rent – and whilst these are all incredible pieces of work, they focus on HIV as life-limiting because of the time-period they cover.’

As a freelance theatre-maker, Nathaniel has written and performed in recent plays First Time and Toxic, where he has drawn on his own experience of living with HIV. He has also run workshops in schools, sharing his story to educate young people about the condition.

In contrast to the era depicted in Philadelphia, contemporary progress in science and medicine has resulted in effective treatments which prevent HIV transmission and ensure people with the virus live long and healthy lives. Nevertheless, stigma associated with HIV endures, presenting a challenge that Nathaniel believes can be addressed through art.

“It’s important now to use storytelling and music to celebrate how far we’ve come and raise awareness of the modern-day realities of living with HIV. People still face stigma, discrimination and rejection from others because of this virus and there’s absolutely no reason why they should.”

The release marks the final stage of WNO’s Three Letters programme, designed and delivered in collaboration with Fast Track Cymru to raise awareness of the contemporary realities of HIV.

Diverse stories

Building on the work of the AIDS Quilt Songbook project which began in the USA in 1992, the programme has led to the creation of a trio of projects which explore the stories of individuals living with HIV today.

Leading on the project was Michael Graham-Court who works in the Programmes and Engagement department at WNO.

Michael said: “The creative process for each piece in Three Letters has been very different, and we’ve ended up with three distinct ‘letters’ about HIV – one from young people in Cardiff, one from a person living with HIV, and one more from us as a company.”

Three Letters began in September 2021 with creative workshops at Cardiff West Community High School in Ely.

Nathaniel and HIV activist Mercy Shibemba worked with students to create the first
song – We learn, we know, we understand which was described by the company as ‘a statement of allyship and support from the young people of Cardiff.’

The second song All These Dreams saw Mercy collaborate with singer songwriters Eädyth Crawford and Aliyah Wiggins to tell the story of her own experiences with HIV.

All of this work has been complemented by internal action at WNO with a new HIV company policy, the appointment of organisational ‘HIV Champions’ and staff training leading to WNO attaining a Positive Allies charter mark in December 2022.

On the legacy of the project, Michael said: “As an artistic company, we can offer a unique platform for diverse stories and voices, and provide audiences with new insights through powerful drama and song.

“I sincerely hope that our project has highlighted these vital issues and made a meaningful contribution to the efforts of Fast Track Cymru to end HIV transmissions and stigma in Wales by 2030.”

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