Text by: Patrick McGraw adapted from Helen Creighton
August 20, 2017, St. Matthews United Church, Halifax, NS
Jayani Abeysekera, soprano; Simon Docking, piano / Opera from Scratch
Although known primarily as a collector of Nova Scotia folk songs, folklorist Helen Creighton also collected stories of magic, ghosts and the supernatural, many of which were narrated to her as events directly experienced by the storytellers. The Heart is based on one such story, a chilling and fascinatingly enigmatic one told by the pseudonymous Alma J, who came from a community where a belief in magic was strong and both men and women were often thought to be witches. Mrs. J describes how her great-great-grandmother bewitched her as a small child, making her susceptible for the rest of her life. She goes on to describe her later confrontation with a neighbour who she believed was casting spells on her, and her eventual revenge by means of magic involving a pig’s heart.
The Scene: A dimly lit, seldom-used parlour in a Nova Scotia home, 1947. Mrs. J., who works as a housekeeper for a sea cook, is eager and impatient to tell her story to Helen Creighton who is visiting during one of her song-collecting expeditions. It seems that she wants to unburden herself. Knowing that the sea cook does not approve of witchcraft, Creighton has arranged for Mrs. J. to be invited to the home of another acquaintance where she can talk more freely the following day, but rather than wait, Mrs. J instead seizes upon an opportunity to share her story when the men have gone into the kitchen. Perhaps they are singing in the kitchen while she tells her tale, as we hear fragments of folk songs played by the piano during pauses.
The Heart was written for Jayani Abeysekera for the Opera From Scratch workshop in Halifax, Nova Scotia, August 2017. Excerpts of Helen Creighton’s book Bluenose Magic (Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1968) are used with permission from the Creighton family.