The libretto, by Saskatchewan-born, Algonquin writer Yvette Nolan, is structured around the 10 sketches Shawnadithit, the last living member of the Beothuk, left behind
THE CANADIAN PRESS
Updated: June 10, 2018
ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — In 1829, a uniquely important young woman died of tuberculosis in St. John’s.
Shawnadithit was the last living member of the Beothuk — Newfoundland’s lost Indigenous tribe, who died out after Europeans brought violence and disease to the island.
She left behind drawings and records that constitute most of what we know about her people.
It is the stuff of operas — and is now becoming one.
A libretto based on her life is being developed as a co-production between the St. John’s-based Opera on the Avalon and Toronto’s Tapestry Opera.
Workshopped for the first time this month at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s, Shawnadithit is to make its Toronto debut next summer.
The libretto, by Saskatchewan-born, Algonquin writer Yvette Nolan, is structured around the 10 sketches Shawnadithit left behind at the home of explorer William Cormack.
Nolan relied on historical texts, including the writings of Cormack — who founded the “Beothic Institution” and sought to preserve Beothuk history — and the work of scholar Ingeborg Marshall.
But Nolan said most of her work draws from stories found between the lines of recorded history.
“As an Indigenous person and as a feminist, it means we have to read against the grain,” said Nolan. “We have to read what’s not there. But that’s also the story of being Indigenous in this country.”
Nolan reached out to Indigenous artists from across the country, including Aria Evans, Michelle Olson, Jerry Evans, Lori Blondeau, and Jordan Bennet, to interpret Shawnadithit’s artwork for the show’s design.
“It’s so fascinating to me what she created in that little time, inside that little space,” Nolan said. “It’s not just the artifact that was left, but how it has affected us as Indigenous artists that we get to show the audience.”
It tells Shawnadithit’s story from the time she met William Cormack until her death.
The workshop paired Nolan’s writing with initial musical compositions from St. John’s-based Dean Burry.
Burry had been fascinated by Shawnadithit’s story since his childhood growing up in Gander, N.L. After taking a few runs at writing the opera, Burry asked his longtime friend Nolan to work with him.
Once Tapestry Opera came on board, they reached out to Marion Newman to star.
Originally from Vancouver Island, Newman is an accomplished mezzo-soprano opera singer of Kwagiulth and Sto:lo heritage. She wasn’t familiar with Shawnadithit’s story, but it was easy for her to find places of connection with the character.
“I think any Indigenous person has probably had that feeling, or met up with somebody who said, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize there were still Indigenous people. You’re the first one I’ve ever met.’ Like, that has happened several times in my life,” Newman said.
“The idea of actually being a people who is understood to be disappeared resonates.”
The task of bringing Shawnadithit’s story to life comes with big challenges — for starters, how to write an authentic story about a people with no surviving members to consult?
This was one of the reasons the story is based around Shawnadithit’s drawings. Artist Jerry Evans, who grew up in Grand Falls-Windsor, says consulting with other East Coast Indigenous people has been a crucial part of ensuring the opera’s authenticity, in the music and the language.
“You can look at it as being dialectic changes between us, but we have similar things, we have exact words for certain things, for animals and such,” said Evans, who is of Mi’kmaq heritage. “I think we can just look to our cousins.”
While little is known about Beothuk musical traditions, Burry says he’s approaching the composition by using natural objects to bring Shawnadithit’s world to life.
“Growing up here in Newfoundland, we certainly share the wind, and we share the tides and the rain, and so it was those sounds, those sounds that we all would have heard the same way, that I wanted to start to derive the music from,” said Burry.
Burry and Newman say Shawnadithit’s story is well-suited to opera, expressing the idea that music is the universal, emotional language that everyone can understand.
“When you think about what opera is, it’s storytelling through music with some instrumentation, rhythm, costumes, makeup, masks, what have you. Most cultures have a tradition of that kind of storytelling through music,” said Newman.
After the initial read-through, Burry will compose the majority of the opera’s music, before “Shawnadithit” premieres in Toronto next summer.
There’s still creative work to be done, but collaborators like Evans hope they will keep alive her story, and that of the Beothuk people, “so that there’s something more than that footnote.”
“They were our relations,” said Evans. “They were people. They were human beings.”
Newman says after hearing the initial soundscapes and compositions, she’s starting to feel Shawnadithit come alive.
“When the waves are pulling away, that sort of thing paints the whole picture for me — my character, where she’s from, and what her world has been,” said Newman.
“Which makes her not just a character on a page, but she’s starting to become human.”