First Nations Tale Falls Short Of Its Operatic Promise

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Tapestry Opera’s world premiere of ‘Shanawdithit’ tells the story of the last known member of the Newfoundland-based Beothuk people. Marion Newman, center, stars in the title role. (Photos by Dahlia Katz)

TORONTO – These are heady days in Canada for Indigenous culture, however this problematic concept might be defined. Funding agencies at various levels of government are more than willing to support projects that involve First Nations themes and artists; corporate donors are often happy to be associated with these undertakings. Thus the interest surrounding the opening on May 16 of Shanawdithit, an 80-minute one-act opera made in equal measure of missed opportunities and good intentions.

The former home of the Beothuk people (Wiki Commons)

Shanawdithit (1801-1829), named Nancy April by the British, was the last known member of the Beothuk, a people that lived in Newfoundland before the effects of European settlement (tuberculosis, loss of fishing and hunting grounds, and violence) rendered them extinct. Unless we accept the belief that the Beothuk intermarried with the Mi’kmaq nation and remain with us in the gene pool and in spirit. This seemed to be the consensus of the 20 or so individuals, many of Indigenous descent, who were listed as collaborators in a creative process designed by Tapestry Opera to be “organic” rather than “hierarchical.”

The opera was also unconventional in other ways. Audience members were given ritual pouches of tobacco on entering the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre (a space in the headquarters of the Canadian Opera Company) and required to hear a lengthy recitation by an Ojibway elder before music director Rosemary Thomson signaled the start of the opera proper. To judge by a program note by Michael Hidetoshi Mori, co-director of the show and general director of Tapestry, composer Dean Burry, a Newfoundlander though not one with Indigenous credentials, was expected to stress the environment in his score and not to appropriate traditional music or perpetuate stereotypes.

Shanawdithit (at right) relayed her story in sketches for settler William Cormack (baritone Clarence Frazer).

Despite these 21st-century protocols, the story of Shanawdithit (Marion Newman, a copper-toned mezzo-soprano) has considerable old-fashioned operatic potential, of which the presentation took some advantage. Found destitute in the interior around 1823, the young woman was relocated to St. John’s, where she worked as a domestic, first for mean-spirited John Peyton (an appropriately edgy tenor, Asitha Tennekoon) and then for deeply sympathetic William Cormack (a resonant baritone, Clarence Frazer).

Cormack’s frequent apologies to Shanawdithit were no doubt intended to stand in for larger societal expressions of culpability. Yet librettist Yvette Nolan, an Algonquin playwright, was wise to make this native Newfoundlander of Scottish descent both well-intentioned (he sought to preserve the Beothuk) and three-dimensional, thereby lending human substance to what might otherwise have might been a didactic evening.

Shanawdithit’s detailed drawings are valued by Canadian historians. (Wiki Commons)

As for the title character, she was unmistakably noble and long-suffering, but her monochromatic music did not convey much in the way of emotional detail. Often Shanawdithit sat at a desk, working on the sketches that have long been valued by Canadian historians. Five “core Indigenous artists” used these as a point of departure for colorful banners presented near the end of the performance.

The opera included interludes of dance, some with narrative content. Most striking was the abstract abduction of Shanawdithit’s aunt, a sequence in which Aria Evans effectively played the central figure. (She was described as “Mi’kmaq, Black, settler” in the race-conscious program.) Credit is owing also to set designer Camellia Koo and the others responsible for the evocative curtain of tubes on which outdoor scenes were occasionally (indeed, too seldom) projected. Tapestry knows how to put on a show.

Shanawdithit’s memory of the long ago abduction of her aunt is enacted by dancer Aria Evans.

Alas, the company failed to furnish surtitles, on which operagoers (and composers) have come to rely. Even though the text was  in English, many words were lost in this high-ceilinged room, and much of the story with it. Sorting out the symbolic and narrative elements of the drama was a perpetual challenge, and while Burry summoned evocative sounds (including percussion-generated rainfall and the inevitable flute solos) from his orchestra of 11 and his chorus of 18, it was hard to find an arc, musical or theatrical, in Shanawdithit.

The opera runs through May 25 in Toronto before moving to St. John’s, Newfoundland, for one performance on June 21 under the auspices of Opera on the Avalon.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal GazetteLudwig van Toronto, and La Scena Musicale.