Critic blasts Duluth opera's non-Indian casting of 'Pocahontas'An attempt to stage an opera intended to celebrate American Indian culture is now facing an accusation of racial insensitivity.
By: Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune
An attempt to stage an opera intended to celebrate American Indian culture is now facing an accusation of racial insensitivity.
The Duluth Festival Opera’s production of “Pocahontas: A Woman of Two Worlds,” which opens Thursday at Fregeau Auditorium at Marshall School, is a one-act chamber opera about the young American Indian woman who eased relations between American Indians and Europeans in the 1600s.
When the cast was named, no American Indians landed principal roles — not even Pocahontas, a Powhatan Indian.
Duluth Festival Opera director Craig Fields said auditions didn’t generate interest from the American Indian opera performers from around the country. But Lyz Jaakola, an operatic mezzo soprano and member of the Fond du Lac Band, said the DFO didn’t try hard enough or in the right ways and that there is no excuse for non-natives to “play Indian” in 2011.
“To me, seeing any non-native Pocahontas … non-native Pocahontas’ mother, any extras in buckskin would be enough for me to cringe,” she said. “Poor Pocahontas has been dragged around enough.”
“Honoring native people”
“Pocahontas” was originally commissioned by the Virginia Opera and Virginia Arts Festival as part of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.
It was written by Minnesota composer Linda Tutas Haugen and librettist Joan Vail Thorne. It made its world premiere in 2007 and was lauded as a “superbly crafted score that includes American Indian motifs and touches of the Elizabethan age,” by Opera Today.
The librettist and composer researched Pocahontas, interviewed a Jamestown scholar, met with American Indians and spent time in Jamestown. Haugen said they wanted a story that captured the truth of a creative and intelligent woman who bridged cultural gaps.
“In Virginia, it was very well received,” Haugen said. “Everyone — old, young, Native American audience members — saw it and loved it and felt I had very much honored their past.
“We were careful to tell the story in a very respectful way, honoring native people.”
Haugen and Jaakola met to talk about “Pocahontas” while the DFO’s production was still in the concept stages. Jaakola said she saw photographs of the show in Virginia, which featured non-American Indians in soloist roles.
“I told her that the only way it was ever going to be successful in Minnesota is if they hired native people throughout,” Jaakola said. “Maybe in Virginia they felt it was a success there. But my sense is that they have a different climate there than here. I wanted to let her know in Minnesota we have a very healthy native population who are not afraid to use their voice and let people know if things are not how we think they should be.”
Jaakola withheld involvement
Jaakola was briefly and minimally involved with the DFO production, asked by Fields to help identify musicians to be cast in the show.
“We needed involvement from the Native American community,” Fields said. “She seemed like a natural fit because she had been involved with the DFO and she was an educator at Fond du Lac. She’s deeply involved with the musical scene.”
Jaakola said she wanted to see the production done right and wrote a letter of intent for a grant proposal to the Minnesota State Arts Board stating that she would help the Duluth Festival Opera find native people to play traditional music. But she said she never thought the project would get funding.
“I really didn’t,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Well, the state arts board is a lot more savvy. They’ll see this: a non-native company, a non-native composer, writing for a cultural and heritage grant’.”
And it never got to the point of Jaakola contributing further. She clashed with Fields when her name and that of the Fond du Lac Band were included on the opera company’s fundraising letter. When she told Fields she was not going to be involved with the project, she said he told her he had listed her on the grant application as a co-director.
Karen Diver, the Fond du Lac chairwoman, declined comment on the inclusion of the band on the fundraising letter.
The opera was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Legacy Arts and Cultural Fund’s Arts Tour Minnesota Grant, which they are using to produce “Pocahontas” and tour to Grand Rapids and Burnsville.
“Blind” auditions held
When it came time for auditions, Fields said word was put out to American Indian communities around the country. The open tryouts were treated as “blind” auditions, he said, and they were looking for the best performer for the job.
“My personal feeling is that the work succeeds on its own merits, whether it is performed by a Native American or not,” Fields said.
Fields said there are parts of the opera that call for only American Indian involvement and that Fond du Lac singers and drummers are involved with the production.
Robert Powless, an Oneida Indian and professor emeritus of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is an adviser on the project. Powless said he approves of the casting and that characters’ ethnicities should be matched whenever it is possible, but in this case there weren’t a lot of American Indian musicians who auditioned.
“If you don’t have the people who do that, then it’s very difficult to put someone in that role,” he said.
Jaakola said there are a number of American Indians in the opera or musical theater business in the United States and Canada.
“If I were casting an Indian opera and I couldn’t find ‘enough Indians’ to help me, I simply wouldn’t do it,” Jaakola said. “But that’s my cultural paradigm.”
For an upcoming musical event Jaakola is hosting, she has gotten Jennifer Stevens, an Oneida Indian and operatic soprano, to perform.
And had things been different, Jaakola might have tried out. She has taught music and American Indian studies at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and performed at the Rome Operafestival in Italy.
“If things would have been done appropriately, if I didn’t feel like it was a bad professional relationship to enter into, I would have loved to sing,” she said.
Racial casting not strictly upheld in opera
Opera, an art form that is hundreds of years old and has strong European roots, has a tradition of casting outside of the race of the characters. It’s been the case in “Othello” and “Madama Butterfly” — the doomed love story of a Japanese girl who marries Pinkerton, an American naval officer.
“In opera, there is more liberty in matching up racial background with people singing the roles,” said Laura Wittstock, the retired founder of Migizi Communications in Minneapolis, which provides communications and technology training for American Indians. She is also producer and host of First Person Radio, heard on KFAI in Minneapolis.
“When you approach the subject from a romantic perspective, you’re going for the moon and the stars and you’re ignoring the realities of life. In ‘Madama Butterfly,’ you see this magical relationship that ends tragically. Nothing to do with what the U.S. was really doing in Japan. Opera is seldom ever looked at as reality.”
But a modern opera about a real person may be different.
“If you ask, ‘Should Pocahontas, in this day and age, be played by an Indian,’ the answer is yes,” Wittstock said.
Alternative event planned
Jaakola is holding her own event opening night of “Pocahontas.”
“A Native American Music Showcase” is at 7 p.m. Thursday at First United Methodist — “the coppertop” church.
The event includes Oshkii Giizhik singers, Terry Goodsky, soprano Jennifer Stevens, the fusion band Custer’s Last Haircut and Bryan Jon Maciewski.
“We don’t have the budget like they do,” she said. “We won’t have fancy sets. We won’t have beautiful lighting. They’ll probably have more buckskin than we will.”