Stage Door News

Toronto: Indigenous artists prepare for world premiere of opera “Shanawdithit” on May 16

Monday, May 6, 2019

Tapestry Opera, Opera on the Avalon and Indigenous artists from Nations across the country are preparing for the premiere of a new opera that challenges the one-sided historical perspective on the Beothuk NationPremiering May 16, Shanawdithit sheds light on the misrepresented history of the real-life story of the title character Shanawdithit (1801-1829) who was taken to St. John’s by explorer William Cormack and was believed at the time of her death to be the last known member of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Beothuk Nation. 

Shanawdithit created a series of 10 drawings towards the end of her life, illustrating the life of her people, the lands they lived on, and the loneliness of survival.The detailed drawings form the basis of the opera and are reimagined and brought to life by five Indigenous artists who have created spectacular large-scale works of art, which will provide the backdrop for the opera.

It’s important to emphasize that the Beothuk are not extinct. Not only is it widely accepted that intermarriages existed between the Beothuk and other local nations before settlers arrived, it’s also understood that the remaining handful of Beothuk who survived the settlers were taken in and protected by the Mi’kmaq. The challenge in telling the story of Shanawdithit is engaging in the balance between acknowledging the cultural devastation visited on the Beothuk people by settlers, while not casting aside what and who remains. It’s important to recognize the incredible harm and loss, and see clearly the people who survived.

Creators’ Notes: The Making of Shanawdithit

“The process has been completely unlike anything I’ve done before. I have never written an opera inspired and enlightened by so many collaborators. The composer is usually the leading force in an opera, but in this case I feel like I have been guided so much sharing and community it is unlike any other project with which I have been involved” – composer Dean Burry as quoted in barczablog

The key to the success of Shanawdithit is in its welcoming Indigenous voices to shape and lead the work in creation and performance. This is meant to be a contrast to previous artistic works, histories and academic publications that ignored Indigenous voices and placed a positivist settler perspective on history.” – Tapestry Opera’s Artistic Director Michael Mori as quoted in the May 2019 edition of the WholeNote

The story and libretto are written and curated by celebrated Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan. The score is composed by Newfoundlander Dean Burry, with Kwagiulth and Sto:lo mezzo-soprano Marion Newman as Shanawdithit, Canadian baritone Clarence Frazer as Cormack, and a chorus featuring tenor Asitha Tennekoon, Metis mezzo-soprano Rebecca Cuddy, Inuk soprano Deantha Edmunds, Ojibway baritone Evan Korbut and Mi’kmaq/Black/settler dancer Aria Evans. Performances run from May 16 – 25, 2019 at the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre in Toronto, after which the show will travel to Newfoundland and Labrador for a performance on June 21, 2019 at St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre.

Illustration: A drawing by Shawnadithit, c. 1829, in Bibliothèque et Archives Canada.