Review: Shanawdithit (Tapestry Opera/Opera on the Avalon)

Tapestry Opera presents the premiere of a landmark Canadian-Indigenous in Toronto

Musically and thematically Tapestry Opera and Opera on the Avalon’s world premiere Shanawdithit is a testament to the possibilities of new opera. While the story is historical, it explores the subject of colonization in a manner that is very much in contrast to opera’s history of romanticizing, exoticizing or orientalizing non-Western European cultures.

Shanawdithit (Marion Newman) was a young Indigenous woman of the Beothuk nation who was captured by Newfoundland settlers in 1823. She was the last known member of the Beothuk who were wiped out by European violence, disease and the starvation that comes with displacement. After her capture, Shanawdithit was kept for five years as a slave in the home of John Peyton Jr. (Asitha Tennekoon), commander of the British forces and the man who slaughtered her other family members.

As her health begins to fail from tuberculosis, the illness that claimed any of the Beothuk who were not killed by violence or famine, she is taken into the home of Scot William Cormack (Clarence Frazer). Cormack is interested in preserving Beothuk culture for the annals of history. He has been scouring the Island for any members of the Beothuk nation, but Shanawdithit is the only person he is able to find. Most of what is known about Beothuk culture today comes from the notes and sketches Shanawdithit made while living with Cormack. Cormack makes arrangements for her care and medical treatment during the final stages of tuberculosis and she succumbs to the illness in 1829 at the age of 29.

This opera was created collaboratively by librettist/co-director Yvette Nolan (Algonquin), composer Dean Burry, co-director Michael Hidetoshi Mori and six Indigenous artistic collaborators: Lori Blondeau (Cree, Saulteaux, Metis), Jordan Bennett (Mi’kmaq), Jerry Evans (Mi’kmaq), Michelle Olson (Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation) and Meagan Musseau (Mi’kmaq). Each collaborative artist was inspired by Shanawdithit‘s sketches.

Rather than opening with a grand overture that exposes all of the musical themes that will be developed throughout the opera, Newfoundland composer Dean Burry opens Shanawdithit with the orchestra members creating the effect of waves lapping on the shore with rain sticks. A starry sky and full moon backdrop is projected onto wood poles of staggered lengths that are suspended from the ceiling of the stage. Throughout the performance, reproductions of Shanawdithit’s sketches and the artistic collaborators’ variations on her themes are projected onto this backdrop. Combined with the aroma of pine needles strewn through the performance space a very sacred aura descends in the theatre. This sets a fitting tone for a work that is at once devastating and a monument to the resilience of a woman and of a people.

Marion Newman (Kwagiulth/Stó:lō) is outstanding in the title role. Her warm, mezzo-soprano voice has a strong, throbbing vibrato that leaves a lump in the listener’s throat and her visceral connection to the central themes was transparent. Her performance is full of palpable rage, pain and loneliness.

Clarence Frazer’s sweet and robust baritone voice is also a great cast for Cormack. Cormack is the 19th century equivalent of a well-meaning white liberal. He has much greater respect for the Beothuk than the rest of his compatriots and yet still falls into “noble savage” misrepresentations and assumptions. It is a complex role to play and Frazer handles this tension ably.

Asitha Tennekoon is a subtly subversive casting choice for the role of villain Peyton. Tennekoon makes his smooth round tenor slippery and bombastic for this role. It is very jarring to see a man of South Asian descent parroting some of the ugliest ideas upon which modern day white supremacy is based, and the creative team obviously know this. I have a strong memory of Tennekoon’s spine-tingling performance in the lead role in Tapestry’s 2016 production Rocking Horse Winner. In Shanawdithit he is able to step into the skin of his enemy with chameleon-like dramatic flexibility.

Rather than concluding with the devastating finality of Shanawdithit’s death, the story concludes with a philosophical conversation between Shanawdithit and a descendent she was never able to have, played by soprano Rebecca Cuddy (Métis). Cuddy has a sweet, humming-bird fast vibrato that was divinely ethereal in this scene. The spirit chorus eventually joins them for a powerful finale where they come to the realization that the Beothuk will live on in all of us as we speak their name and tell Shanawdithit’s story.

My reaction to the score was mixed. The music demonstrates excellent creativity with use of sound effects such as the rain sticks and the incorporation of texture and movement with the spirit chorus. Despite these strengths there were times when I felt the music was emotionally detached from Nolan’s libretto, in which each line is a gut punch.

The score demonstrates a lot of rhythmic and harmonic variation and the 11-piece orchestra executes this like a well-oiled machine under the direction of Rosemary Thomson.

On the whole, seeing Shanawdithit is a transformative experience; an important step in real truth and conciliation is facing the ugliness of the past so we can figure out a way to move forward. Shanawdithit is a beautifully modern incarnation of opera’s tradition of combining music and narrative to tell important social truths. I hope this timely world premiere will spark numerous revivals that honour the memory of a woman and a nation whose existence was cut short by the same hatred that is rearing its ugly head today.

Details:

  • Shanawdithit plays until May 25, 2019 at Imperial Oil Opera Theatre (227 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario)
  • Show times are 8 PM on May 16, 21, 22, 23 & 25 , with and additional matinee at 4 PM on May 18.
  • Tickets prices range from $55-99.
  • Tickets are available online.

Photo of Marion Newman by Dahlia Katz

One thought on “Review: Shanawdithit (Tapestry Opera/Opera on the Avalon)”

  1. I saw it and initially felt as though my senses were almost over saturated. Even walking to my seat required me to walk over the forest floor. The sensation of mulch under my feet was so unexpected. Winds rustling branches I could see in the backdrop took me to the site of the story. Rich, warm voices carried the emotions of the characters. What a wonderful experience. I agree with the writer above- at times the orchestra didn’t seem to match the singers. But seeing this was an enriching experience, something I would highly recommend.

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