The header is a line from Yvette Nolan’s libretto for Shanawdithit; the work she is creating with composer Dean Burry for Tapestry Opera and Opera on the Avalon, which tells the story of the last survivor of the Beothuk people. I sat down with them on Friday to talk about how the work has progressed since I saw an incomplete version in workshop last October. The line really does get to the heart of the creative process that addresses the issues I raised in my review of the workshop (i.e. how we remember and tell stories) and this line, and it’s accompanying music, have become a kind of leitmotiv for the emerging work.
So where are we at now; two weeks before the premier versus a few months ago? Then the piece was incomplete and in piano score and key visual elements, including much of the choreography, was yet to come. Now it’s essentially complete though it’s clear that “tweaking” is still going on in what is obviously a very close working relationship between composer and librettist. What I also sensed was a creative process involving the whole team in a very non-hierarchical way wrestling to figure out what “the story” is and how to tell it to a contemporary audience. We discussed how it might play out with a (predominantly) settler-Canadian audience watching a story of genocide against Indigenous people created by a team with a significant Indigenous component. It is, in a sense, risky. It’s miles away from a Zeffirelli Traviata. In so far as that’s still a benchmark for the expectations of part of the traditional opera audience, it’s also a benchmark for the challenge of presenting Shanawdithit.
We talked about some of the technical elements. It’s a one act piece lasting about 90 minutes reflecting the modern tendency to want to keep the audience “in the story”; opera as theatre rather than as a “night out”. Which, as we discussed, is also more cinematic and therefore perhaps more familiar to non opera goers than the whole kerfuffle with intervals and so on. The music is deliberately atmospheric; inspired by the natural soundscapes of Newfoundland, so there aren’t really any vocal or orchestral pyrotechnics. It’s scored for chamber ensemble. There are both improvisatory elements and “numbers”; some arias, some dances. I don’t think we are going to just see a “play with a soundtrack” here (thank Heavens!). In the last analysis though it’s “story driven” with all the elements; visual, textual, musical, combining to that end which, again, brings us back to the question I started with.
All, of course, will be revealed when we see the finished work which I am very excited about (have been for months!). Shanawdithit; music by Dean Burry, words by Yvette Nolan, plays May 16th to 25th at the Imperial Oil Theatre with Marion Newman in the title role. There’s loads more useful information here and you can get tickets here.