Like a lot of Juneau residents, William Todd Hunt read a “Wolf Called Romeo” by Nick Jans about seven years ago
But his reaction to the bestseller about the black wolf who over a decade ago captured both the attention and hearts of many through interactions with locals and their pets was different from that of essentially everyone else.
“I read it, and I was like ‘Oh my God, this has to be an opera,’” Hunt told the Empire.
While that idea didn’t take form immediately, Hunt, a Juneau composer and conductor, began considering ways a musical work could share the story of a striking animal who thrilled and charmed many across several years before being illegally shot and killed in 2009.
“I started thinking about how this can become an opera, and I never came up with the idea, and it stirred for a few years,” Hunt said. “And it never really happened until I realized everyone has their own impression of what Romeo is.”
He realized not many concrete facts are known about the wild wolf with a fondness for domesticated canines outside of his traipses into the sights of humanity. Sizable stretches of the wolf’s life occurred outside of the human gaze. Jans said the wolf lived to be about nine, and the animal was already a couple of years old when the famous interspecies interactions began.
That notion of individualized impressions and multifaceted views culminated in the Orpheus Project’s “Wolf Songs,” a musical event that will see the world premiere of two original, commissioned pieces inspired by Juneau’s famous black wolf. Each piece was written and shaped by different creative forces.
The performances set for Friday, Saturday and Sunday are the climax of a month-long celebration of the much-loved lupine.
“Just the fact that we’re here 18 years after he first appeared and a dozen years after we last saw him that he is being celebrated is a wonderful, wonderful thing,” Jans told the Empire.
“Black Wolf ”
“Wolf Songs” features two original pieces bound by a common source of inspiration.
“Black Wolf” by Emerson Eads and Dave Hunsaker, who worked together on the maritime disaster-based opera “The Princess Sophia,” features verbose, gravelly narration from Hunsaker that feels like late-period Leonard Cohen. The piece contextualizes the relationship between humans and wolves before recounting the story of Romeo.
Jans said the relation between humanity and wolves, which eventually led to domesticated dogs, is woven into the text of his book, too.
“This connection between wolves and humans is at the center of who we are,” Jans said. “We got to witness how we got where we are in one of the more remarkable if not the most remarkable interspecies mammalian bond on this planet.”
Hunsaker, who wrote the narration for “Black Wolf,” said that when he began working on the piece, he found himself getting carried away.
“I think I found that I just had a lot of say about this wolf,” he said. “I was one of those who saw the wolf really very early on, and then some really close friends of mine were heavily involved with it. I became interested in the phenomenon at the time, and I was pretty interested in the trial of the guys who shot the wolf.”
A Pennsylvania man and a Juneau man in 2010 faced multiple charges stemming from big game violations. Each man pleaded guilty to multiple charges, received suspended sentences and were ordered to pay fines, the Empire previously reported.
Jans said the punishment is emblematic of long-held attitudes both in Alaska and the broader U.S. toward illegally killing predator animals.
Eads, who composed the music for “Black Wolf,” said the storytelling of Hunsaker’s words presented a challenge when coming up with musical accompaniment.
“It was hard for me initially because the text is very, very narrative,” Eads said. “It really tells the story.”
Eads said he found inspiration in approaching the piece like a Passion cantata, musical works that draw their themes from the Passion Jesus Christ.
“I just decided that the choir needed to be equal parts with the orchestra,” Eads said. “The choir has a big, big role in this. “
Vox Borealis and the Amalga Chamber Orchestra make that happen.
Hunsaker said upon hearing Eads’ work played during rehearsal, he found it beautiful.
“I found myself getting choked up,” Hunsaker said. “I don’t get easily choked up.”
Eads, who will be traveling to Juneau for the premiere, said he’s excited to hear it in person and excited Franz Felkl, who is concertmaster for Juneau Symphony Orchestra, and Sean Dowgray, a percussionist and instructor at University of Alaska Fairbanks, will be among the dozens of artists performing “Black Wolf.”
Felkl, Eads and Dowgray studied together at UAF.
“It’s so wonderful to write music for people you know,” Eads said.
“A Wolf Called Romeo”
“A Wolf Called Romeo,” the second work in “Wolf Songs,” is by Hunt and Jans.
Jans spoke positively of the project and the piece that shares a title with his book.
“I was of course delighted,” Jans said. “That wolf was near and dear to me for a long time and always will be.”
Hunt said stories provided by Jans helped shape the work, but noted that in some cases names and identities were changed.
“The things that struck me were some of the personal experiences of people,” Hunt said.
Both Hunt and Eads said they tried to avoid literally depicting the sounds wolves make with their compositions. Instead, Hunt said his goal for the music was summoning a sense of place.
He aimed to channel “just sort of the atmosphere and domain” and sought to “evoke the frozen lake and glacier,” in “A Wolf Called Romeo.”
The piece features the Amalga Chamber Orchestra, singers Tess Altiveros and José Rubio, and dancers from Juneau and Los Angeles. Genevieve Carson served as choreographer, Cody Potter was costume codesigner for the project, and Greg Mitchell is projectionist and light designer for “Wolf Songs.”
Dancers for “A Wolf Called Romeo,” include Hyosun Choi, Hali Duran, Anouk Otsea, Cody Brunelle-Potter, Drea Sobke, Alisha Falberg, Ali Maricich, Lanie McCarr and Ty Yamaoka.
Hunt said the show has a broad appeal for residents of Juneau.
“This is part of Juneau history,” Hunt said. Everybody, I think, in some way has a connection with Romeo. Whether they saw him or not or were even around because we all have a connection to nature.”
The end of “Wolf Songs” won’t be the end of wolf-related artistic endeavors.
There is a children’s musical tale about the wolf that will be coming later in the year, Hunt said.
Once that wraps, it’s unlikely to be the end of the wolf called Romeo in public consciousness. Jans said the story of Romeo is an enduring one, and “Wolf Songs” and connected events are proof of that.
“It is not only a quintessential Alaska story,” Jans said. “It’s a story that belongs to Juneau. It’s a story that’s part of this town and it’s people. That’s kind of cool. A town that was friends with a wolf.”
• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt
Know & Go
What: “Wolf Songs”
When: 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 18 and Saturday, Feb. 19; 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 20.
Where: Thunder Mountain High School, 3101 Dimond Park Loop
Tickets: Tickets are available at https://orpheus.ticketleap.com/wolf-songs/. General admission costs $30. Admission for seniors costs $25 and admission for students cost $10.
Mitigation measures: Attendees must show proof of either vaccination, a negative COVID test from last 48 hours or proof of recovery from COVID in last 90 days at the door. Pictures are acceptable. All attendees must wear a mask covering you nose and mouth at all times. Only about 300 of the venue’s 400 seats will be sold to provide some room for distancing, according to Orpheus Project.