How, collectively, we remember is a cultural act defined by both choices and the general milieu in which the remembering takes place(*). Sometimes this results in stories being distorted and “misremembered”. The story of Shanawdithit, the last survivor of the Beothuk people is, perhaps, one such story. Her life and death, the final act in the campaign of genocide against her people is still “remembered” in Newfoundland culture but how much do we really know? The “evidence” boils down to a handful of sketches by Shanawdithit, annotated by one William Cormack; pretty much the only white person to show her any kindness or to display any interest in her people. Dean Burry and Yvette Nolan’s new opera; a co-production of Tapestry Opera and Opera on the Avalon asks what we know and how we know it. I attended a workshop presentation of the incomplete work yesterday.
The piece has been created with much input from Indigenous people. Art work has been created especially for the piece. Yvette herself is Indigenous, as is Marion Newman singing Shanawdithit and several other members of the cast. It feels “authentic” and the post performance discussion yesterday was highly emotionally charged. It’s also a rather beautiful piece. Dean’s music serves the story. It isn’t flashy. Much of it consists of soundscapes invoking the Newfoundland interior, with much use of rocks and gravel shakers, though it’s sometimes quite playful. When one Simms offers to take care of Shanawdithit after Cormack goes broke, the music briefly quotes the hymn tune The Day of Resurrection to good effect. The vocal line is singable and carries the excellent text well. There are no vocal pyrotechnics.
Considering that the cast started work on the piece on Tuesday and bits changed over the course of the week, the performances were very strong. Marion Newman and Clarence Frazier were consistently convincing as Shanawdithit and Cormack. Asitha Tennekoon put in a rather frightening cameo as a deeply racist judge. The “spirit chorus” effectively combined a variety of singing styles, movement and “banging the rocks together”. Ceinwen Gobert made an excellent job of dancing Michelle Olsen’s choreography.
There are still scenes to be written and key visual elements; projections and banners, were not in place for the workshop. The music was in piano score plus percussion and a short flute solo. The finished work will feature a chamber ensemble. Incomplete as it is I found Shanawdithit to be a profoundly moving piece; an impression that was reinforced by the intense and emotional discussion that followed the show.
Shanawdithit will premiere in Toronto on Thursday May 16th running until the 25th. It will play at Opera on the Avalon June 21st and 22nd. See it if you can.
(*) Thank you to Paul Fussell whose The Great War and Modern Memory I’ve just reread for rather obvious reasons.