In an historic first, Opera Theater Oregon brought the story of Sacajawea centerstage with captivating intensity at the Hinckley Studio Theatre in the Hampton Opera Center (May 14). The unique presentation, entitled Nu Nah-Hup: Sacajawea’s Story, featured Indigenous language, an Indigenous opera singer, Indigenous instruments, an Indigenous musician, a libretto by an Indigenous writer, and music created by Indigenous composer Hovia Edwards and Justin Ralls. Directed by Katherine Goforth, the opera superbly conveyed a snippet of the woman who was absolutely crucial to the success of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Consisting of one dramatic scene – based in part on the journals of Captain William Clark – Nu Nah-Hup: Sacajawea’s Story, takes us to a river bank camp-site where Sacajawea (Marion Newman) sings to her baby son. Her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau (Richard Zeller) arrives and demands something to eat. He rejects all of the food she serves and begins to threaten her. Clark (Daniel Gibbs) comes in at the nick of time to stop Charbonneau from striking Sacajawea, reminding him that the Expedition needs her linguistic, diplomatic, and cultural skills to obtain horses. After Charbonneau storms off, Clark reassures Sacajawea that he cares for her and her baby.
The text of Nu Nah-Hup (the title means “what happened to me”) was written by Rose Ann Abrahamson, the great-great-great-grandniece of Sacajawea and a Lemhi-Shoshone Agai-Dika culture bearer. Sung in Agai-Dika/Lemhi-Shoshone, Québécois French, and English, her libretto also used Native American sign language when Clark communicated with Sacajawea. That may well have been another operatic first.
Newman–one of Canada’s foremost mezzo-sopranos who has Kwagiulth and Stó:lō First Nations, English, Irish and Scottish heritage–poured warmth, hopefulness, and longing into her singing of the Lemhi-Shoshone Agai-Dika language. Zeller in the role of Charbonneau countered that sentiment with the coarse and abusive demeanor of a man who always gets what he wants. Unleashing his declamatory baritone, Gibbs, as Clark, put a stop to Charbonneu’s abuse, and provided a calming presence that made me wonder what would happen next.
A highlight of performance was the soothing sound of the Native American flute, played with stunning, expressive refinement by Edwards, who has Shoshone-Navajo-Okanogan heritage. Edwards deftly switched between several flutes, all of which were made to specific keys.
Ralls created lovely soundscapes that combined the Native flutes with a chamber orchestra, consisting of strings, flutes, bass clarinet, horn, piano, and percussion. His music shifted organically – from languid to joyful to tense – and it all worked well to set the scene and convey the drama. His conducting was very energetic and clear, and that communicated well to the orchestral ensemble, which sat at a formidable distance on the other side of the stage.
The performance was done with traditional costumes and a simple but effective stage setting that had all of the necessary ingredients.
It was terrific to see a number of Native Americans in attendance. During the talkback session, many of them spoke of how touched they were by the performance, and the story brought up a lot of issues and memories that were good and bad. For example, it was very emotional for many to hear a Native language being sung, because Native languages have been suppressed and are threatened with extinction.
Abrahamson emphasized how she wanted the opera to be told from Sacajawea’s perspective. That especially came across with Newman’s singing a lullaby in which she fervently wanted her son to meet her people.
What’s next for Nu Nah-Hup: Sacajawea’s Story? Executive director and producer Lisa Lipton said that Opera Theater Oregon would reach out to other opera companies in order to find co-commissioning funding. It will be interesting to see how things progress. If we were to compare Edwards and Abrahamson to Sacajawea, with Ralls and Lipton as Lewis and Clark, will the company find a helpful Thomas Jefferson to support the rest of their Expedition?