First-ever first Tlingit opera will premiere locally

It is a collaboration between Perseverance Theatre and the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

The pageantry of western opera will join forces with the Tlingit culture’s rich history of storytelling, song and dance to create the world’s first Tlingit opera. The opera, which is currently untitled, will premiere at the Perseverance Theatre around 2025. (Courtesy Photo / Sealaska Heritage Institute)

The pageantry of western opera will join forces with the Tlingit culture’s rich history of storytelling, song and dance to create the world’s first Tlingit opera. The opera, which is currently untitled, will premiere at the Perseverance Theatre around 2025. (Courtesy Photo / Sealaska Heritage Institute)

The pageantry of western opera will join forces with the Tlingit culture’s rich history of storytelling, singing and dancing to create the world’s first Tlingit opera. The opera will premiere at the Perseverance Theatre around 2025.

The opera will be performed primarily in Lingít, the Tlingit language, and will feature Indigenous actors and singers. The Sealaska Heritage Institute is supporting the writing and production of the work in partnership with the theater. The writing and scoring work is currently underway.

“The Tlingit language, singing and dancing traditions are powerful. It will make a fantastic opera,” said Tlingit librettist Vera Starbard, who is Perseverance Theatre’s playwright-in-residence, on a phone interview with the Empire on Tuesday.

Starbard is writing the show’s outlines in collaboration with Tlingit composer Ed Littlefield.

“The writing is very challenging and intimidating. It’s the most difficult writing I’ve agreed to do, but I’m excited about it,” Starbard said.

The story

The story will transport the audience to Alaska in 1802 when the Tlingits launched a coordinated attack on the Russians in Southeast Alaska, Starbard said.

“The Tlingit-Russian conflict is usually presented as a confrontation between ‘whites’ with superior arms and brave-but-outnumbered and poorly armed Natives. Nothing could be farther from the truth,” said Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl in a news release. “The Tlingits saw themselves as victors even as they formally ceded to the Russians the site of their village and fort, now known as Sitka.”

Starbard said the history of the time is more complicated than the way modernity tells the story.

“It wasn’t just a single battle. The Sitka battle was a big one,” Starbard said. She explained that the Tlingits attacked the Russians because of abuses being inflicted on women and elders and a lack of trust around trade.

“In 1804, the Russians responded by coming back. So this is a story of both battles. Both battles were huge deciding issues for Russia in terms of staying in Alaska and their decision to sell Alaska to the United States illegally. It may have been one moment, but it was a key moment for world history. It was a true multi-nation war with an interesting amount of global interest,” Starbard said.

Providing a new perspective is one of the show’s goals, but it also leads to the challenge of distilling so much history and oral tradition.

“The biggest challenge is that this is a true story that involves many different Tlingit clans with their own protocols and their own recall of history,” Starbard said. “Making sure it’s accurate but only telling a portion of the story is challenging. It’s an amazing story.”

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The action tells the story

Starbard said that although the show will be performed mainly in Lingít, the story will be clear to those who don’t speak the language.

She explained that the work draws upon Chinese opera tradition, which uses percussion instruments as a dramatic element.

“You should gather what’s going on without understanding the words,” she said. “It’s less of the story being told through lyrics and more through music, masks, costumes and movement.”

Adding opera

According to the news release, the opera will include a score grounded in Tlingit musical and performing arts traditions and events, some of which were held in natural amphitheaters set in mountain valleys.

In a phone interview last week, Flordelino Lagundino, art project coordinator for the opera, said that while the songs are still being composed, the Tlingit culture provides a natural blueprint for the material.

“This kind of performance is part of the Tlingit culture. So, there are things to look back to as we start to look forward on this project,” Lagundino said. “What’s exciting is that it’s creating something brand new. We are being respectful of traditions and the language, and the culture. The work is derived from individuals in the culture.”

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Upcoming workshops

In conjunction with Sealaska Heritage Institute, Starbard and Littlefield will offer the first of a series of workshops for Indigenous actors and singers to prepare them to perform in the Tlingit language on April 11 and 12.

The two-day online singing and acting workshop will be led by Littlefield and feature theatre veteran Vishal Vaidya, who will share acting and singing techniques that allow participants to sing with a full and open voice. Littlefield will teach Tlingit language basics and strengthen performers’ connection to the text.

“In reality, it’s a new way of using speech and oratory, so the workshop is using two of the new songs he’s writing and sharing in the workshop to help people learn how to perform them,” Lagundino said.

Lagundino said that additional workshops are expected to take place this summer and fall. Auditions for the full opera production will be held at a later date.

• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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