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Chief Standing Bear c. 1877
13 Mar 2007

Native-American Drama at Opera Omaha

Perhaps the gestation period for “Wakonda’s Dream,” premiered by Opera Omaha on March 7, was too long.

Rossini, employing the formulae of his day, could dash off a new work in a week or two; the collective responsible for “Wakonda” - composer Andrew Davis, librettist Yusef Komunyakaa, director Rhoda Levine and OC general director Joan Desens - began their brain storming in 2002. “Wakonda” was five years in the making.

Originally focused on the 1879 trial of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, the story changed into a “meditation” - to use Davis’ designation - on the court decision that first recognized the rights of Native Americans. (They were not granted citizenship until 1948.) In its many meetings the collective decided upon a family drama set in the present, heavy with the dreams - and nightmares - faced still today by Native Americans.

Standing Bear - now positioned among the chorus at stage rear - has become a reference point for two generations intent upon keeping “their feet on the path” while finding “a place beyond shame and sorrow.” And although Louisiana-born Komunyakaa, the Pulitzer prize winner noted for his writing on the Vietnam war and now a professor at Princeton, feels that he delivered a “straightforward narrative,” he also wanted to tell a story that goes “beyond history.”

A plethora of problems has found its way into the opera: the kids- even Native-American kids - playing “Cowboys and Indians” all want to be Cowboys, and there’s discrimination and alcoholism. Budding romance between a young Indian and white girl Laura leads an irate father to threaten violence. It’s more than can be handled comfortably in a two-hour work, and thus it’s not surprising that “Wakonda’s Dream” ends a bit up in the air. Davis and his colleagues might have done better to keep the focus on the trial that made Standing Bear a legend.

Davis’ creative concern with racism brought him early fame with his widely praised “Malcolm X” (1986) and “Amistad” (1997). Yet one understands his hesitation to compose yet another trial after the courtroom scene at the center of “Amistad.” The changed plot stresses the continuing dilemma of Native Americans, for whom “the past is one long death march to nowhere.”

Blue-collar Justin Labelle (Eugene Perry) dreams of a better life for his son Jason (William Ferguson). But in an alcoholic haze, confused by the spirit of the trickster Coyote, the father shoots - and kills - his son. It’s a tragic tale, and on the heels of this murder the consolation of the finale - even with the American Indian Dance Theater on stage for the ceremonial dance that returns Justin to his tribe - seems a facile resolution of the many problems involved.

Davis is a gifted craftsman and has done is utmost to tailor a score suited to the subject matter at hand. Indeed, in the first act he has perhaps gone too far in giving primacy to words over music, for here he largely restricts himself to the illustration of narrative. One anticipates - but waits in vain - for an outburst of melody in an aria or duet.

The score is more engaging in the conflicts and confrontations of the second act - especially in the meeting between Jason and Standing Bear that is at the heart of the story. Davis has written music of particular strength and beauty for the chorus that sits with immobile dignity in an arc at the back of the stage throughout the opera.

He faced a major challenge in writing a score “that lets the audience in,” that brings emotional weight to the experience of the story by causing the listener to identify with the characters on stage. The opera opens with a “soundscape,” recorded sounds of Nebraska nature that fill the Orpheum before giving way to instrumental voices. Davis weaves jazz and folk motifs, along with Native-American hip-hop, into a score that keeps the listener alert. And Opera Omaha has assembled a strong cast for the staging. In addition to Perry and Ferguson and Ricker, Phyllis Pancella is a lovingly concerned wife and mother, while Arnold Rawls portrays a regal Standing Bear. Kids Lilly Nunn and Jonah Davis excel as central figures in childhood.

Peter Harrison designed a single set that evokes an inner landscape of desolation. Costumes were by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Steward Robertson conducted an enlarged chamber ensemble drawn from the Omaha Symphony.

Opera Omaha made the work the center piece of a month-long festival of outreach events designed to provide the community with background on this chapter of early Nebraska history. This, in turn, no doubt accounted in part for the many Native Americans in the opening-night audience.

“Wakonda’s Dream” joins such earlier operatic “meditations” on the fate of America’s natives David Carlson’s “Dreamkeepers” (Utah Opera, 1996) and Henry Mollicone’s “Coyote Tales” (Kansas City Lyric Opera, 1998) as an admirable endeavor to focus attention on a dreadful heritage. Whether it moves beyond Omaha remains to be seen. Before the March 7 premiere Rufus White, a spiritual leader of the Omaha Nation, blessed the cast of the production.

Wes Blomster

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