By Susan Bond
Caitlin’s note: Susan is a fantastic Toronto-based dramaturge who has been kind enough to help me sort through the jumble of ideas I have had about this show. She helped me to fix the libretto before I began reorchestrations this fall. Below, she miraculously pulls together my song cycle into one coherent narrative for you. Amazing!
As the title tells us, Safe and Healthy Homes for Children is about being brave and leaving home; but in many ways it’s more a story about leaving home and being brave. A deeply personal work, Safe and Healthy Homes came about during Caitlin’s year living and studying in Brooklyn. The title is taken from a Public Service Announcement about lead paint - one of the traumas of big city living that Caitlin herself got to deal with (a line in her lease forbade her from licking the walls).
The piece starts with our hero(ine) still safe at home: it opens with her (a Sapphic fragment voiced by all three singers) lying in bed; safe, certainly, but isolated and somehow restless. The second movement is the longest, and in many ways the focal point of the work. It is a setting of “The Woman Who Lived in a Shoe”, a short story by indie darling Sheila Heti from her work The Middle Stories. In it, the protagonist takes stock of her current comfortable (but still lonely and kind of boring) life, and decides to leave home. The moment of her decision is filled with excitement, and the actual leave-taking is a moment of triumph.
If the first half of the piece is about leaving home and what makes us do that, the second half is about being brave among the danger of the outside world and the unpleasantness we’re faced with when we try to live there. Unlike the first act, the majority of the second is set to Caitlin’s own words, drawn both from her own experiences of living and working in Brooklyn, and other hostile environments. The exception to this is the sixth movement, a setting of a poem by the American novelist John Updike. “Vibration” expands the reach to more of the outside world - instead of just dealing with the nightmare that Brooklyn can be, it shows the unfriendliness of a more general urban landscape. It also serves as a good bridge to the last movement, “Public Service Announcement no. 2” in which our heroine considers the larger world, and possible homes that may or may no be healthy and safe.