The Xen of Opera: Exploring The Creation of ‘Nahasdzáán In The Glittering World’

An American Indian Story on the Operatic Stage Premieres in France

By Xenia Hanusiak

Opera, Song and Music Theater is quivering, twisting, and turning. Could it be that we are in an  renaissance? There is a new blood pulsing through its veins. Opera and theater makers are pulling at its heart, resuscitating our interest and taking us to diverse locations with as yet unclassifiable languages and forms. The Xen of Opera looks at the protagonists and projects that are moving the needle of opera, song and music-theater.  It is a monthly column that takes readers far and wide beyond the proscenium arch and writes about the influencers who are rewriting new narrative across the globe. There is no prescription to its content: sometimes a snap shot, sometimes an idea, sometimes an observation, but always the song.

In April I attended a very impressive world premiere of a new operatic dance work called “Nahasdzáán,” composed by French composer Thierry Pécou, with a libretto by Native American poet Laura Tohe. The premiere took place on April 23, 2019 at Opera de Rouen, in the Normandy region of France. The ritualistic dance-oratorio is based on the Navajo philosophy of life.

Under the direction of Luc Petton–renowned for his dance theater works incorporating animals–the Nahasdzáán company comprised of a quartet of singers, Pécou’s own Ensemble Variances, two dancers, two owls, an eagle, and a wolf transformed the operatic stage.

The production received overwhelming praise and response from critics and audiences. Waldemar Kamer from Opernfreund said, “’Nahasdzáán’ will bring new audiences to opera, for a new form of opera. Where has this been done? It has not been done before…Thierry Pécou established Ensemble Variances in 2009 and since that time has attracted attention from across the globe with his distinct, beyond definition productions. During his tenure at the National Opera of Paris, Gérard Mortier called these forms ‘frontière’ … At this borderline or rather cross-border area, Thierry Pécou now introduces the ‘choreographic oratorio.'”

François Cavaillès from Anaclase summarized the work’s unique qualities: “Luc Petton, Laura Tohe, and Thierry Pécou all share the concerns of Anthropocene – the human impact on the earth’s geology and ecosystems. The oratorio ends with a meeting of animals that alerts us to the risks we are taking–notes Pécou in the program. This is the message of the hour and a half show. We are humble and grateful. The ovation by the audience proved it.”

Most interestingly for future presenters this unusual work with a French-American creative team features two American born European based singers: soprano Christie Finn and Bass baritone John “Taylor” Ward. I was fascinated to learn of their journey in their work and learn more the quintessential this North American Indian experience, its universal message and ponder why this opera should be performed in the United States.

I first spoke to librettist, Laura Tohe, a writer whose work has been published in the journals Ploughshares, New Letters, Red Ink, World Literature Today, and many others.  Tohe wrote the commissioned libretto for “Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio” for the Phoenix Symphony’s world premiere in February 2008, and her book “No Parole Today (1999)” was named Poetry Book of the Year by the Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers. “Tseyi, Deep in the Rock (2005),” a collaboration of poetry and photography by Stephen Strom, received the Arizona Book Association’s Glyph Award for Best Poetry and Best Book. Tohe also co-edited “Sister Nations: Native American Women Writers on Community (2002)” with Heid E. Erdrich. Her other awards include the Dan Schilling Public Scholar Award by the Arizona Humanities. Tohe’s most recent publication is “Code Talker Stories (2012),” an oral history of the Navajo Code Talkers.

OperaWire: What is the opera about and what can audiences expect?

Laura Tohe: The oratorio is called “Nahasdzáánin in the Glittering World.” “Nahasdzáán” means Mother Earth in the Navajo language and the Glittering World refers to the world we are presently living in.  It is a long epic story and, according to Navajo stories, there were previous worlds where insects, humans, winged animals, and four-legged animals lived, but because of disharmony and conflict they created in each world, they had to move into the next succeeding worlds.

The oratorio begins with the first world and makes its way into the Glittering World where the world is once again in disharmony and choices have to be made.  Some of the parts were written for animals—an eagle, raven, coyote and a spider.  However, we had to make some changes on the animals, so you will see live animals–owl, an eagle, and a wolf.  A human will play the part of the spider.  Native American stories are filled with animals that are thought of as relatives, healers, messengers and heroes. The oratorio is loosely based on the Navajo stories and expresses what is happening on Mother Earth from the point of view of humans and animals.

OW: What are the messages you wish to communicate?  

LT: The theme of the oratorio uses the philosophy of Navajo healing.  Thierry and I liked the theme of healing and to write a libretto based on this theme interested us very much.  In western medicine a patient consults a doctor, a diagnosis is made and a prescription and/or therapy are prescribed. Navajo medicine follows a similar path in that a medicine man, who is part healer and psychologist is consulted and a diagnosis is given for a particular healing ceremony.  This is where western and Navajo healing differs– the Navajo philosophy of healing treats the cause, not the symptoms as western medicine does.  The cause might come from creating disharmony in the world or in one’s self.

When this happens a healing ceremony is called for to bring the patient back into harmony and on a path towards spiritual healing so that the individual may be restored to a state of well-being, spiritually, and psychologically.  Family and the extended family participate in the healing process from the beginning to the end, so the patient is not left alone to make their own way.  In this way, the patient can return to a healthy, productive and peaceful life among family and community.  While the oratorio begins with the Navajo stories of the previous worlds, it expands outward to the contemporary world and to what is happening to Mother Earth on a larger scale in the era of global warming.

One of our points of discussion, as we began this work, was how humans are living in disharmony with the earth.  How can we heal the earth polluted with poisonous air, plastic oceans that are killing aquatic animals, polluted rivers, toxic waste and pesticides poured on the earth, and the displacement of animals due to human development?  We want to leave the audience thinking about the choices we have to make for the future, not only for the future generations but also for all inhabitants of the earth.

What does it mean to you to have the rituals and philosophies of your people translated to the classical music tradition of the opera? 

LT While this work is a hybrid work of indigenous story and classical music, the story is not a telling of a healing ceremony because they are guarded to protect their integrity and healing ability.  Navajo healing ceremonies already incorporate solo and group singing as part of the healing process as sound therapy, so using music and human voices were not a big stretch.  One of the take-aways from the oratorio lets the audience see that there are alternative philosophies of healing long practiced before western medicine came to the Americas.  Bringing this philosophy through the classical music tradition shows the power and beauty of this kind of healing ceremony.

Interview With Soprano Christie Finn & Bass John Taylor Ward

American soprano Christie Finn has performed as a soloist with arspoetica (Germany), Asko | Schönberg (Netherlands), CrossingLines (Spain), Hezarfen (Turkey), ICTUS (Belgium), Nadar (Belgium), Oerknal! (Netherlands), oh ton (Germany), VocaalLAB (Netherlands) and several ensembles in New York City, including ekmeles and Experiments in Opera. She is a founding member of the experimental duo NOISE-BRIDGE.

John Taylor Ward performs regularly with the world’s finest baroque musicians and ensembles, including Christina Pluhar and L’Arpeggiata, Paul O’Dette, Steven Stubbs and the Boston Early Music Festival, William Christie and Les arts florissants, and Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists.

OperaWire: As an American, were you aware of the myths and philosophies embedded in the Navajo libretto? 

Christine Finn: I grew up in Pennsylvania, and, in elementary school, we learned about Native American tribes (and their cultures) located in the Northeast, such as the Iroquois, in detail. Through my own reading as an adult, I have learned more about Native American culture in general, and the devastation ravaged on Native Americans due to colonization (I highly recommend “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States: by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz). I only learned about the myths and philosophies specific to the Navajo through this project.

John Taylor Ward: This was my first exposure to Navajo mythology and philosophy. I come from a region of the USA that is thousands of miles from the Navajo’s traditional territory, and my awareness of native culture was mostly related to the tribes who came from my home in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina.

OW: Has participation in the opera given you new insights into North American Indian “ways of being” and if so has it changed your perspective?

CF: I have absolutely gained new insights into the Navajo culture, especially through conversations with Laura Tohe. I wouldn’t say that my perspective has changed, as I have always had a great respect for the Native cultures of North America, but I find many aspects of it fascinating, especially that the Navajo mythology is closely tied to exact locations in the Southwest. The matriarchal hierarchy within the Navajo is also interesting.

JTW: This project has certainly opened my eyes to the traditional Navajo world-view. I think the most impactful idea presented in this piece is humanity’s history of destroying worlds that must then be re-formed. In so many ways – political, ecological, and cultural – I think this idea has amazing resonance in today’s world.

OW: How do you think “Nahasdzáán” will contribute to the repertoire?

CF: There needs to be more stories like this—those outside of the traditional “canon” of Western literature/music—in the classical music world. “Nahasdzáán” is refreshing both musically and in its story. Not only is the work dramatically and artistically captivating, but it engages the listener on a deeper level of cultural dialogue with Navajo beliefs. The important thread of environmental sustainability, woven into the last movement, is also a powerful message.

JTW: “Nahasdzáán” is a unique addition to the repertoire. It blends imagistic and narrative text and music with dance, but most importantly with the presence of live animals. The authenticity that actual creatures have, with no artifice, drives home the message of the piece and grounds it in a way that I have never seen before.

OW: What do you think American audiences will gain from this opera if the opera is staged in the US?

CF: Learning about the complex mythologies of the Navajo culture can bring that culture to life for American audiences. Knowing another culture in detail often heightens the respect that one has for that culture, and respecting cultures outside of your own is greatly important, especially in today’s heated political climate.

JTW: American audiences will be introduced to a native culture that they may know little or nothing about. Of course, “Nahasdzáán” is not a Native American opera, it is an opera on Native American themes, so I hope that this piece could wet an American audience’s appetite to learn more about the Navajo people.


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