Who would expect a new opera to affirm the value of the artform?
Shanawdithit is a new opera co-produced by Newfoundland’s Opera on the Avalon and Toronto’s Tapestry Opera. There was a workshop a few months ago, a tantalizing glimpse not so much of the work we would see so much as the process in play during the creation. Telling the story of a European encountering a vanishing Indigenous culture is in some ways a perfect microcosm for the entire settler enterprise, although usually the images are so brutal as to be unbearable. This is a gentler story because most of the slaughter is in the past at the time of this story. Shanawdithit as the last of the Beothuk could calmly answer the questions of an eager historian, whose curiosity parallels the attitude of many of us in the audience, with all our good intentions & ignorance, with most of the harm and violence left out.
Opera sometimes has a bad reputation among theorists, a medium for affirming & celebrating power, a way for nobles to lord it over the not so noble, to demonstrate class difference by forcing people in the cheap seats to sit through messages from the gods telling you that the nobles deserve their divinely ordained advantages and are really better than you.
But what if it could be re-purposed, employed to tell a different sort of story? We know opera to be a Euro-centric form often employed to celebrate the assimilation of other cultures. That very history works to its advantage in the collaborative venture that is Shanawdithit. While this may be a story of cultural imperialism & genocide, it doesn’t aim to teach the superiority of a way of life.
Yvette Nolan & Dean Burry are the two main creators of this new opera that premiered last week. I am reminded of the Mahler 7th symphony that I saw last week, that employs various objects to make noise as part of a musical score. Burry starts us in a borderline realm, not quite silence nor noise, but with breath and the clicking of stones against one another, before slowly leading us into music of greater conviction.
I have to think that Burry’s experience is an archetypical demonstration of the anxiety of influence. But no it’s not the usual version of one afraid of copying, fearful of sounding like Puccini or Wagner, so much as the concern he might seem to be appropriating a cultural artifact (for instance, thinking of the song sung during Louis Riel), or at the very least, suggesting something aboriginal. Not only do we have the real music but also the offensive musics that turn up in films or sports stadiums to signify something understood as “native”, and so also needing to be dodged like explosive mines hiding under the surface.
And so no wonder that Burry’s score seemed to lean more heavily on his orchestra for expression than upon his vocalists, who often seemed to proceed with great caution through the aforementioned minefield. Nolan sketches a story that is very generous in some ways, painting a portrait of William Cormack that verges on sainthood. I think he’s maybe too good to be true, a version of a man with great compassion and empathy alongside other settlers who are more typically bigoted. Shanawdithit left us a series of pictures, and Cormack wrote on top of these images. Perhaps the key is to recognize that while this might be a story of an Indigenous encounter with a European who seems too good to be true in my eye, it’s told from an Indigenous perspective, which means my experience does not apply here.
Among the interviews between Shanawdithit and Cormack, we see a climactic encounter that almost made me burst out laughing at the wonder of what we saw. I don’t think I’m being a spoiler to describe the growing enthusiasm with which Cormack listens to Shanawdithit tell of her people, as the stage is filled with life. He even seems to see them all and dance along with them. And abruptly they all stop and stare at him, even though we were really watching the memories of a culture inside her head. It’s pure magic.
I am reminded of a premiere I attended back in the 1980s, a bewildering new piece that was castigated by one critic because it didn’t do what music & opera usually do. I mention this because it’s important to carefully see what the piece is trying to do and how it works, rather than taking it to task for not being what we want it to be. There is not as much conflict as some people might expect in a piece of theatre. But Shanawdithit is more celebration than tragedy, and more spiritual than theatrical.
Nolan & Burry take us back in the classical direction in sometimes employing their chorus as a greek chorus. At times I suspected that when Shanawdithit is addressing her people, whether in her family or the Beothuk people more generally –all of whom she believes to have died out—her thoughts and their thoughts are echoed in the chorus: as though we hear the spirits, the souls of those who are still alive in another realm. The opera would challenge that assumption –that the Beothuk have died out—and affirms that in some respect they live on.
I have only one small complaint, which concerns the intelligibility of the text. Often I was guessing at the meaning of lines, perhaps due to the acoustics. I would recommend surtitles especially in those moments of passionate singing, or when more than one person sings at the same time. Nolan created a wonderful libretto that I wish I could hear in its entirety. Perhaps earlier –on opening night? in rehearsals?—the cast were paying more attention to their enunciation, whereas tonight I feel they were committed to their portrayals, totally into character. The surtitles would help, as I think their singing was superb and wouldn’t want them to restrain themselves for the sake of a few consonants.
Marion Newman was very powerful, in recreating Shanawdithit, in all the poignancy we might expect for someone who was the last of the Beothuk people and aware of her legacy. Nolan gives her the role of a kind of commentator or spokesperson, larger than life. Clarence Frazer brought Cormack’s fervent curiosity to life, a portrayal of great compassion. Aria Evans plays a huge role that’s perhaps a bit difficult to describe, except to say that via dance we are given another pathway to the story, both what came before and what might yet come to pass.
(morning after: I realize belatedly that I have struggled so hard to come to terms with the piece that I omitted the conductor, the director, as well as several performers & collaborators, needing to get to bed…. If the piece works–and it does– they deserve credit)
Shanawdithit articulates Cormack’s interviews, his desperate attempt to capture a culture before it vanished in the last person alive. The opera takes us beyond the face to face encounter of two persons to the encounter of peoples that might lead to reconciliation, the dream of peace and acceptance. While it may seem like an impossible dream, an artificial construct: it can work perfectly in the realm of opera.
Shanawdithit continues at the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, 227 Front St East on
Wed. May 22, Thurs.May 23, and Sat May 25, all at 8:00 pm. , and then on June 21, 2019
St. John’s Arts & Culture Centre.