It was patriotism – and fate – that launched Heather Pawsey’s 19-year search for Ogopogo. It wasn’t Lake Okanagan’s mythical creature itself that she was after, but an opportunity to stage a Canadian opera about an Ogopogo sighting, in the actual spot where the real-life event had taken place. Written in the 1950s, that opera, titled The Lake, had never received a full production when Pawsey discovered it.
The first part of this Canadian opera tale begins in the early 1870s when Susan Allison and her husband, John, settled on the west side of Okanagan Lake at their Sunnyside Ranch. On a stormy fall day when John and their son had gone across the lake for supplies, Susan, concerned for their fate and scouring the water for their boat, spotted what she first thought was a tree but quickly came to believe was the lake dweller known as n-ha-a-itk – a creature she had heard so much about from her aboriginal friends.
The story picks up in the 1950s, when Barbara Pentland, a pioneering modernist composer, teamed up with Governor-General’s Award-winning poet Dorothy Livesay (both women were born in Winnipeg and died in British Columbia) to write an opera. Commissioned by an amateur organist from London, Ont., The Lake recounted Susan Allison’s sighting of Ogopogo in 1873. But beyond a CBC Radio broadcast, it was never staged.
Jump to 1995, when Pawsey, a young soprano, entered the Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition. She wanted to sing an aria from a Canadian opera, but the Canadian opera scene being what it was, she didn’t know of any. So she set off for the Canadian Music Centre B.C. Region, where for days she pulled all kinds of songs and arias off shelves – until she came across a handwritten, unpublished score. It was The Lake, and Pawsey was hooked.
“I opened it and I looked at the first page and honest to God I went, ‘This is it, this is the aria.’ And I knew I was going to have a really long relationship with this piece,” Pawsey told The Globe and Mail.
She would win first prize with that aria the following year, but before that – in between rounds one and two of the competition – she was visiting Quails’ Gate Winery in West Kelowna, B.C., with her husband. As she tells it, while her husband was geeking out over wine during a tasting in a little log cabin on the property, she found a scrapbook about the house. Flipping through it, it became apparent that she was in the spot where Allison had spotted Ogopogo.
“I realized that Sunnyside Ranch was Quails’ Gate Winery now and I’m standing in Susan Allison’s house and I went, ‘We have to do it here,’” says Pawsey, who did not yet have a company (she has since founded Astrolabe Musik Theatre) and could not fathom how she was going to do it, but was determined to stage the opera there nonetheless.
“It was one of those weird times when you get a message from the universe, the powers, the spirits, whatever it is that you believe in that something comes to you and you don’t have a choice; it just has to happen.”
Nineteen years later, it is finally happening. The Lake is being performed at Quails’ Gate this weekend, with Pawsey singing the role of Susan Allison. (Further evidence of this being fated: Allison and Pawsey, both of Scottish ancestry, share the same birthday – Aug. 18, the day after the show closes – and they both arrived in B.C. on their birthdays.)
It is the first fully staged production of the work. But this is not The Lake as Pentland and Livesay had written it. This is The Lake/N-ha-a-itk, with the original work as its core, but also infused with the music, traditions and legends of the Westbank First Nation, for whom n-ha-a-itk is an important figure (as opposed to the tourism-driving kitschy commercial mascot to which Ogopogo is often reduced).
In 2012, the centenary of Pentland’s birth, Pawsey staged a concert version of The Lake at the black-box theatre at Vancouver’s Chan Centre. Delphine Derickson, a musician and teacher and member of the Westbank First Nation, was in the audience – it was her first opera – and after the performance, ventured backstage to provide some feedback.
“Our history [is] never really told from our point of view, so it was an opportunity for me, because I’m a teacher … to [provide] the correct information,” says Derickson, who grew up hearing about sightings of n-ha-a-itk from elders and her own relatives. (She declined to specify what she felt may have been inaccurate.)
Backstage at the Chan, Derickson and Pawsey began talking. Derickson confided that she had written a song about n-ha-a-itk. She sang it for Pawsey.
“And I looked at this woman and I thought she’s speaking from her heart; I’m going to speak through mine,” recalls Pawsey. “And I said, ‘You have this thousands-of-years-old musical tradition and … I’ve wanted to bring this opera home for 17 years.’ She said, ‘I’ll do anything I can to make that happen.’ And I said, ‘Do you think there’s any way that your rich tradition of music could ever meet with ours? Could we experiment? Could we explore? Could we find ways of connecting?’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘Would you teach me to sing opera?’ And I said, ‘Would you teach me to sing in your language?’” Derickson has become an integral part of The Lake/N-ha-a-itk, a collaboration between Astrolabe Musik Theatre, Turning Point Ensemble and the Westbank First Nation.
Pawsey arrived at Quails’ Gate to prepare last Sunday night, and stood at the spot where her dream was born, watching as the supermoon rose over the lake.
“Nineteen years, later I’m still pinching myself, going wow, I can’t believe this is actually happening,” she told The Globe the next morning. “And then to be blessed with that moon last night was like, oh whoa, this has to be a good omen from the spirits.”
The Lake/N-ha-a-itk is being performed at Quails’ Gate Winery Aug. 15 and 16 at 8 p.m. and Aug 17 at 2 p.m. (thelake.brownpapertickets.com).