Maestro's Musings: Pocahontas
In early fall, the Duluth Festival Opera performed the historical opera Pocahontas: A Woman of Two Worlds by Minneapolis composer Linda Haugen in locations across Minnesota. The opera tells the story of a remarkable young woman thrust by chance into the vortex of one of the most remarkable juxtapositions of cultures in human history: the first coming together of Europeans and native Americans. Ever. The opera offers music of real beauty, and this production enjoyed first-rate singers, inspired stage direction, the oversight of a respected Native American historian, wonderfully creative sets, superb Native American dancers, excellent musicians, full houses, and a glowing review. The conducting? umm...enthusiastic.
Moreover, the production was favored with the flavor of controversy. Lyz Jaakola, a singer and member of the Fond du Lac tribe, brought a complaint to the News Tribune about non-Native singers performing the roles of American Indians. The News Tribune, in business to sell newspapers, can’t let a good controversy go to waste; they splashed a color photo of the production on the front page, headlined: “Critic blasts Duluth opera’s non-Indian casting of ‘Pocahontas’” Ms. Jaakola arranged a competing concert of Native American music in Duluth and recruited a band of protestors. Jumping into the fray, the American Indian Movement brought several dozen protesters to the Burnsville production (along with a request for 35 complimentary tickets!).
Why do I say it was “favored” with controversy? Why not “besmirched” “sullied” “laid low”? “Sunk”? The first reason is obvious: attention, box office receipts, and future funding possibilities. A week before opening night, Duluth was more-or-less ignorant of the production. With front-page coverage and swirling editorial-page back-and-forth, it became something of a must-see event for audiences, news outlets, and the funders who made it possible. In that they saw an operatic production of unquestioned artistic quality, the company grew in its stature within Duluth and around the state.
Much more than that, though, the controversy helped the DFO affect lives. Our audiences experienced art in one of its highest functions: to get people thinking, and talking, and growing. I myself came away from the production acutely aware as never before of the American Indians’ history, struggle, identity, and searing, continuing sense of loss. And I have Lyz Jaakola and the power of art to thank for that.
Since we of European ancestry aren’t packing up any time soon, I can only offer my hope that we can live together, in respect, and for mutual benefit. And Lyz, just say the word—I’ll happily help to cook up some controversy for you.
Markand Thakar is the Charles A. & Carolyn M. Russell Music Director, Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra; music director, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra; principal conductor, Duluth Festival Opera and co-director of graduate conducting, Peabody Conservatory. Visit him online at www.markandthakar.com