Landmark opera SHANAWDITHIT tells an Indigenous story from an Indigenous perspective

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Yvette Nolan

The imminent world premiere of Shanawdithit is a watershed event. This original Canadian opera traces the real life story of Shanawdithit (1801-1829), thought to be the last known member of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Beothuk Nation. It is the first co-presentation by Toronto’s Tapestry Opera (TO) and St John’s Opera on the Avalon, and was co-created by Newfoundland composer Dean Burry and Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan (story and libretto writing and curation). Nolan also co-directs with TO Artistic Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori. As an Indigenous story presented from an Indigenous perspective, Shanawdithit will shatter assumptions about what we think we know about the history of Shanawdithit and the Beothuk Nation. And it might not be overstatement to say that it will also redefine what we think we know about opera itself.

Why use opera to tell Shanawdithit’s story? “Opera is, for me, about voice. About opening up hearts through the sound of the human voice,” offers Nolan. “Contemporary artists who understand that have been using the form to tell more stories that matter to them.  And the story of Shanawdithit, of a woman who was separated from her people with no hope of reunion in this world, who was commonly believed to be ‘the last of the Beothuk,’ that’s a story that we as people who live together on this land need to examine.” Mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, who will sing the title role, adds that every Indigenous story she has ever heard in an Indigenous setting has been told through music, rhythm and movement. “Costumes and theatrics are always present as well. We don’t call our ceremony and story sharing ‘opera’, but much about the fullness of this sort of sharing has similarities.” This makes telling the story of Shanawdithit through opera an “obvious choice”.  

This telling through opera arose from a unique collaborative process. Shanawdithit illuminates the misrepresented history of the title character, whom explorer William Cormack encountered and took to St John’s. The sole documentation that remains of the Beothuk from an Indigenous source is in the form of ten drawings that Shanawdithit completed in the final year of her life. These drawings depict the life of her people, the lands they lived on, and the loneliness of survival. “Because Shanawdithit was so isolated, and died so young, all we have left from her directly are her drawings,” notes Nolan, but she was determined not to rely on accounts by settler and non-Indigenous historians, including Cormack. So Shanawdithit’s intricate drawings form the initial basis of the opera. To broaden the work beyond her personal response, Nolan “invited a bunch of other Indigenous artists to respond to the sketches”. Thus, Shanawdithit’s art has inspired the art of contemporary visual artists, dancers, choreographers, and singers which has been assembled in Shanawdithit.

Clarence Fraser and Marion Newman in rehearsal for Shanawdithit; photo by Dahlia Katz

Five Indigenous artists have interpreted and enlivened the sketches to create large works of art which form the backdrop for the opera. Visual artists Jordan Bennett (Mi’kmaq), Lori Blondeau (Cree, Saulteaux and Métis), Jerry Evans (Mi’kmaq), Meagan Musseau (Mi’kmaq), and choreographer Michelle Olsen (Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation) join Métis soprano Rebecca Cuddy, Garden River First Nation baritone Evan Korbut, Inuk mezzo-soprano Deantha Edmunds, Mi’kmaq dancer Aria Evans, and Kwagiulth and Sto:lo mezzo-soprano Newman. “Each of the artists is responding to one or two (or in the case of the dancers, more) of the sketches, and in this way we see how the generations are talking to each other over time.” Whereas most operas start with the composer and then pass to the librettist, Burry, in fact, composed the music for Shanawdithit as a response to the contemporary artists’ work. He has created music that makes and holds the space for the work – whether that work is video, dance, or installation. The result is a potent contrast: first, to the settler perspective of Indigenous history that predominates; and second, to the typical creation process for the operatic artform itself.

The idea for Shanawdithit traces its origin to the summer of 2016, when Burry approached Nolan to create the opera as a sesquicentennial project. “But even by the time it failed to get support, Tapestry was already deeply committed, and we just went ahead with it anyway,” Nolan explains. They began to invite collaborating artists fairly quickly, and in 2018, they held a number of workshops of libretto and music with the collaborating artists. They have been back and forth on email throughout – sometimes in reference to one moment, sometimes debating a few words. Now, in rehearsal, with the artists’ pieces arriving into the room, they are starting to see things come together . . . and still they are “tweaking”.

The story of the Beothuk people and their genocide has been told for decades from a biased and racist colonial perspective. Settler accounts went so far as to claim that the Beothuk were eliminated by warring Indigenous tribes. In truth, Beothuk are not extinct. Intermarriages existed between Beothuk and other local nations before settlers arrived, and the few remaining Beothuk were protected by the Mi’kmaq. Shanawdithit will help to highlight the uncomfortable tension between acknowledging the cultural devastation the settlers wreaked on the Beothuk and recognizing those who survived and remain. 

“The idea of the Beothuk being disappeared or killed off is not only a romantic notion or an opera plot,” notes Newman. “It is a reality that all Indigenous people across this land have felt . . . Residential schools, reservations, the Sixties scoop, the pass system, building pipelines through Crown lands, populating unceded territories, separating Indigenous people from their land and families from their children was and still is part of government policy from the beginning.” She also observes that the Shanawdithit story of being “the last of her people” is one that could have been “my reality”. This means that “her story is my story, too, but mine has had a better outcome”.  A far better outcome: professionally, Newman loves performing new works, and to be able to combine her formal musical education and experience with the social action of telling truths that until now have been ignored makes her job “that much more meaningful”.

Marion Newman

“Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canadians are sensitised in a different way to their history,” Nolan adds. As the daughter of a parent who suffered through two residential schools, she was shocked at how many Canadians did not know about the residential school system at all, much less about its effects was on so many victims. Such a glaring gap makes it critically important to experience Shanawdithit – and talk about it. “Protest movements like Idle No More, the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Girls, and the increased media coverage of water issues, food safety, and housing in Indigenous communities have all offered Canadians the opportunity to think about what the other side of the story we have been told might actually be.”

Nolan stresses, however, that Shanawdithit is “not about correcting historical inaccuracy, as much as it is about suggesting that there are more ways to look at a story, that one person’s truth is different from another person’s truth”.  Nonetheless, it will widen perspectives and prompt questions that disrupt dominant narratives that have for a long time been told from a positivist colonial position. For this reason, Indigenous artists will perform the Indigenous characters, and Asitha Tennekoon and Clarence Frazer will perform the roles of non-Indigenous characters Peyton and Cormack. And as a full-scale opera – six soloists, a 40-voice chorus, an 11-piece orchestra – accompanied by newly-commissioned large-scale works of art (photography, sculpture, video and painting), Shanawdithit will be an unprecedented, vibrant, and thought-provoking evening of interdisciplinary entertainment.

In this light, Newman heartily encourages audiences – especially young people – to prepare to hear a new narrative: “to not only hear about the death of the Beothuk, but about the life of the Beothuk”, and to examine what “preconceived notions they hold about Indigenous people and relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people”. She encourages all to “leave those notions outside the door of the theatre, and open their minds to experiencing Indigenous reality through the medium of music, movement, words and visual art”. Nolan adds that the biggest thing people can do is to “relax their expectations” of what “they think opera is, or is supposed to be; of who they think sings opera; of what they think they know about Indigenous people and the history of this land we call Canada”.

Instead, we must all stay open to possibilities. “If you feel ‘opera’s not for me’, why? If you can leave that feeling at the door, and just enter into the space with openness and curiosity, you might be surprised at your experience.”

When everything about Shanawdithit – from its foundational pictorial narrative through its collaborative multidisciplinary conception – accretes significance and shatters moulds, “might” is massive underselling.  

Enter the space, and you will be surprised – and enriched – by your experience.

Aria Evans & Yvette Nolan in rehearsal for Shanawdithit; photo: Dahlia Katz

News You Can Use

What: Shanawdithit (World Premiere), co-presented by Tapestry Opera and Opera on the Avalon; Music by Dean Burry; Libretto by Yvette Nolan; Directed by Michael Hidetoshi Mori and Yvette Nolan; Music Direction by Rosemary Thomson

Artistic Collaborators: Michelle Olson – Choreographer (Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation); Lori Blondeau – Visual Artist (Cree/Saulteaux/Métis); Jordan Bennett – Visual Artist (Mi’kmaq); Jerry Evans – Visual Artist (Mi’kmaq); Meagan Musseau – Visual Artist (Mi’kmaq)

Marion Newman (Kwagiulth and Stó:lō) – Shanawdithit
Clarence Frazer – Cormack
Asitha Tennekoon – Peyton, Man 1, Spirit Chorus
Rebecca Cuddy (Métis) –  Kwe/Spirit Chorus
Deantha Edmunds (Inuk) –  Spirit Chorus/Mother
Evan Korbut (Ojibway) – Simms/Man 2/Spirit Chorus
Aria Evans (Mi’kmaq/Black/settler heritage) – Demasduit, Dancer, Spirit Chorus

When and Where: May 16 – 25, 2019 | Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, 227 Front Street, Toronto, ON

When and Where: June 21, 2019 | St John’s Arts and Culture Centre, 95 Allandale Road, St John’s, NL

Info and Tickets:

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019

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