Shanawdithit (1996)

Opera in 1 Act (Libretto D. Burry)
4 Men, 3 Women, Chamber Orchestra

Premiered by U of T Opera Division, April '96

Shanawdithit is an opera based on the true story of the last Beothuk Indian of Newfoundland, who died in 1827. Scene One, which takes place in April 1823, deals with the capture of Shanawdithit, her mother (Doodebeshat) and her sister (Emamooset). The beginning of the scene sees a lone fisherman, William Cull, who is trapping furs in the off-season. After a quiet orchestral prelude, he sings a lively but ominous aria about the difficulties of winter and the pleasure of finally seeing the arrival of spring. Hearing something approaching in the forest, he hides to observe three starving Indian women enter the clearing. The sing a trio, praying to nature and mourning lost comforts. Emamooset is dying of tuberculosis and Shanawdithit, the youngest, asks, " Why do we walk into the arms of Buggishaman (white man). They will only kill us!" In a solo, contemplative moment, Doodebeshat despairs at her daughter's loss of faith and pleads that they may somehow find the strength to go on. Shanawdithit, embarrassed at her own selfishness, apologises to her mother, followed by a duet in which Shanawdithit is convinced of the importance of hope. However, hope is lost when the heartless Cull pounces upon them with his musket primed. Instead of killing them, he remembers the reward offered by the king for the capture of live Indians and sings an evil dance of fortunes to come. As he is leading them off, however, the father of Shanawdithit, Mamjaesdoo, bursts forth from the forest, ordering Cull to leave them. Tensions ensue and the Beothuk man is shot dead by one of Cull's men. The scene ends as the women are led off, the fate of their race now unavoidable.

Shanawdithit incorporates some of the limited vocabulary recorded before the demise of the Beothuk nation and musically is a blend of contemporary atonality and traditional English folk idioms. A concert version of the opera, directed by Michael Albano, was presented in Walter Hall at the University of Toronto in March 1996.