Preview: Canoe/Shanawdithit (Tapestry Opera/Opera on the Avalon/Weesageechak31)

Weesageechak31 explores new Indigenous works including a new opera debuting in Toronto in 2019

Weesageechak Begins to Dance is akin to a festival of extended, live trailers of Indigenous performing arts in development. It is an excellent opportunity to get a taste of what’s up and coming and the breadth of Indigenous creative ingenuity. This year’s festival, Weesageechak31, gave me the opportunity to see previews of two operas in development that explore themes of celebrating Native culture and mourning cultural genocide. Beyond Butterfly, the panel  that followed excerpts from Canoe and Shanawdithit, asked “how do we bring more diversity into opera without perpetuating the stereotypes and exoticization that are part of the genre’s history?”

Opera is probably not what springs to most people’s mind when they think about Indigenous art. In most people’s minds opera is the epitome of Eurocentric cultural hegemony. Yet many of the works that are socially cringe-worthy today were highly political and critical of the status quo of their day. The creative geniuses behind Canoe and Shanawdithit amply demonstrated that opera’s synergy of multiple art forms to manifest larger than life storytelling is a perfectly natural vehicle for the stories Indigenous people have to tell.

Canoe, by Unsettled Scores (Spy Dénommé-Welch, Catherine Magowan) tells the story of two eccentric sisters. The excerpt we saw involves one sister giving a spiritual pep talk to a tree that has just been cut down and turned into a canoe. I am curious to see this work when it is complete and performance ready. The music and storytelling are charming and funny. It sounded as though soprano Nicole Joy-Fraser and baritone Conlin Delbaere-Sawchuk needed a bit more time for the music to soak into their voices, which is understandable for a workshop performance. The piece is clearly compositionally engaging and leverages a mix of classical and popular styles. There were many laugh-out-loud funny moments, which was a great opener for the more intense piece that followed.

Shanawdithit’s story is certainly not one we are likely to see featured on a Canada: Part of our Heritage commercial. Shanawdithit has the tragic honour of being the last know member of the Beothuk nation. The Beothuk were an Indigenous people of Newfoundland who were completely wiped out by the ravages of British violence, displacement and disease. Shanawdithit watched all of her relatives die of famine and disease and was then captured and taken into the home of John Peyton Jr. a man who received an award for his part in wiping out the Beothuk nation. She was later moved to the home of William Epps Cormack, founder of the Beothick Institute, an organization with the ironically macabre mandate of preserving Beothuk culture. Cormack documented her accounts of her people’s way of life and preserved her sketches of Beothuk culture. Much of what is known about Beothuk civilization is derived from their documentation. Shanawdithit died of tuberculosis in 1829 at the age of 28.

Co-produced by Tapestry Opera and Opera on the Avalon, I cannot wait to see this work at its world premiere on May 16, 2019. Given the quality of the workshop excerpts I head it promises to be a gut-wrenching tour de force. Mezzo-Soprano Marion Newman is like the reincarnation of Shanawdithit in the title role. Her voice is rich and off-sweet like fine coffee sweetened with honey liqueur making each note of her tale a gut punch.

Weesageechak Begins to Dance is worth making part of your annual theatre-going schedule. It is a phenomenal platform for Indigenous talent. Definitely go see Shanawdithit in May. Everyone in Canada should know this story and I can’t imagine a better performative genre than opera to capture the epic and timeless tragedy of her life.


  • Weesageechak Begins to Dance  is playing until November 24, 2018 at Aki Studio (250-585 Dundas Street East).
  • Showtimes vary. See website for details.
  • Tickets to individual shows are $15. Festival passes are $60.
  • Tickets are available online,  or by phone at 416-531-1402
  • Shanawdithit opens on May 16 and runs till May 25, 2019
  • Showtimes are 8:00 PM on May 16, 21, 22, 23 & 25 with an additional matinee at 4 PM on May 18, 2019
  • Ticket prices range from $35 to $150.
  • Tickets are available online.

Photo of Marion Newman provided by the company