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Theatre Reviews Indigenous opera Shanawdithit challenges one-sided perspectives

Mi’kmaq dancer Aria Evans, left, sits in a mamateek and librettist Yvette Nolan is to the right.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

  • Shanawdithit
  • Written by: Yvette Nolan and Dean Burry
  • Directed by: Michael Hidetoshi Mori and Yvette Nolan
  • Starring: Marion Newman and Clarence Frazer
  • Co-commissioned by: Tapestry Opera and Opera on the Avalon
  • Venue: At the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre in Toronto

The story of the Beothuk, the Indigenous people who lived in Newfoundland until their near-total ethnocide by the British in the 19th century, is a long and sweeping one. It seems like a good choice for an opera, a genre rumoured to suit such stories.

But the wiser creative choice is the one made by Yvette Nolan and Dean Burry in their new opera, Shanawdithit, co-commissioned by Tapestry Opera and Opera on the Avalon. They zoom in on one face of that large story and name their opera after the young Beothuk woman (ca. 1800-1829) who was thought to be the last of her people. The two companies stand for both the origin and effect of Shanawdithit: Toronto’s Tapestry Opera is arguably Canada’s leader in producing contemporary opera, and the St. John’s-based Opera on the Avalon shares the geography – and at least some of the culture – inherent in Shanawdithit’s story.

Tapestry Opera does right by Indigenous collaboration

There was anticipation among those who sat for the world premiere on Thursday night in the cavernous space of Toronto’s Imperial Oil Opera Theatre. Shanawdithit’s libretto is by Nolan (who is Algonquin), the title role is sung by Marion Newman (Kwagiulth and Stó:lo); the cast and creative team includes a healthy (and rare) proportion of Indigenous singers, dancers and visual artists. This was an Indigenous story that would be told by Indigenous people and, therefore, it would be a rich, clarifying story of a young woman who personifies the effects of British colonization and the erasure of culture.

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Shanawdithit did come with moments of clarity. Newman’s performance as the young woman was disturbing in its subtlety, certainly no echo of the operatic trope of a wide-eyed young woman, happy in her life with a man – any man. Next to William Cormack (Clarence Frazer), the British settler who tried enthusiastically to learn about the Beothuk from one of its last members, Shanawdithit was appropriately tough to crack. Her oft-blank face spoke of post-traumatic stress disorder and enormous loneliness; as she began to hand over information about her people – vocabulary, maps, individual stories of Beothuk/British encounters – she seemed as affected by the happy memories as by the trauma of reliving and retelling these memories to a white man.

Cormack is the wide-eyed one in this story. I felt a draw to him and realized that the well-meaning settler represents who we (who are white) hope we are in our interactions with Indigenous people. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, especially as Cormack’s hunger for information grew invasive, even frustrated. Yet, it’s no surprise that the man who spent actual time with Shanawdithit grew sympathetic to her, and saw the Beothuk as a group of real human lives.

As an opera, Shanawdithit is underwhelming – confusingly so, because all the pieces are well in place. Burry’s score is evocative, pairing stunning soundscapes with unobtrusive vocal writing that serves Nolan’s text; designers Camellia Koo (sets) and Cam Davis (projections) give us a world that becomes a forest, a cage, a cabin and starry sky. Music director Rosemary Thomson pulled grandeur out of Burry’s score, and a clarity of text that was worth the risk of having no subtitles.

Yet, we’re missing that thing about opera, where the human voice does the emotional spending. At the opera’s emotional peak, the story was pulled from Shanawdithit’s hands and distributed among the full ensemble. It’s not a bad device, to zoom out from an individual subject and tell the larger story, but it robbed us of our time with Newman. I craved a proper operatic soliloquy, an “Ave Maria” moment, a “Letter Scene," or some similar moment of Shanawdithit’s candid emotion when it was no longer tempered by the presence of the British.

Of course, that’s perhaps a pointless wish, particularly for an opera that tells a non-European tale and functions as a vehicle for informed Indigenous storytelling. “This is not another settler artist explaining what happened,” writes Tapestry Opera artistic director Michael Hidetoshi Mori in his director’s notes. “This work challenges that one-sided historical perspective.”

Shanawdithit continues its Toronto run through May 25, before travelling to the St. John’s Arts & Culture Centre in St. John’s, on June 21.

A life-sized bronze statue of Shanawdithit stands at Boyd's Cove on Newfoundland's northeast coast.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

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