A Conversation with Marion Newman

Appearing in the title role of the 2020 Dora Award-winning new opera, Shanawdithit, Kwagiulth and Stó:lō First Nations, English, Irish and Scottish mezzo-soprano Marion Newman stunned and electrified Toronto audiences with a performance of enormous strength and matchless sensitivity. Classically trained, the much loved Indigenous-committed singer actor spoke with Opera Going Toronto by phone in an extended 60-minute Q & A following the virtual award presentation ceremony late last week.

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Firstly, congratulations on the Dora. Shanawdithit is by no means the first Indigenous-based role you’ve sung but it’s one that I know is very close to your heart. What is it about this piece that makes it so special for you as an artist?

Well, I was involved right from the beginning of the workshop process. Yvette Nolan was writing the libretto, someone I had worked with before and greatly admire. (Giiwedin, Native Earth Performing Arts, 2010; Bearing, Signal Theatre, 2017) So I understand her style of direction. It’s very important to her to create a process to work within that feels healthy and right. She’s very aware of what it means to be an Indigenous woman so when she was writing she didn’t want the role to be nothing but sadness. But she definitely had a lot to say about how Shanawdithit was treated. She just dealt with it so gracefully. The dialogue is very poetic. She imbued the role with so much dignity. There was just so much I could do standing there knowing and not having to do anything other than just listen to other characters around me. Her ability to pack so much into a small libretto — she’s brilliant at that.

You referred to Yvette’s focus on process. I wonder what form that process took with respect to Shanawdithit. How was the libretto developed? Did you all talk about it or did it just evolve?

Yes, we did table reads. Yvette would listen to what she was hearing and take notes then go away then want to hear it again to make sure the point was always landing. And to see how much she could remove. She used Shanawdithit’s surviving drawings to craft the story. There are things that Shanawdithit repeatedly drew so obviously they were really close and important to her. About how her aunt was taken and returned, for instance. Yvette just felt there was an absolutely valid story there that an audience would want to hear without there being the usual romance one would expect in an opera or the drama of someone dying. She absolutely didn’t like the idea of another Indigenous woman character dying on stage. So throughout the whole process of the development of the libretto I knew I wouldn’t have to contend with that which left me feeling a little bit safer. The opera ends with a new beginning, in a way, because Shanawdithit’s rejoining her ancestors.

It’s a very powerful moment. Looking at your career over the last almost two decades, you’ve been at the forefront of opera and music theatre both that spotlights Indigenous issues virtually from the beginning of your professional life. But classical work, at least until relatively recently, has predominated. Carmen in 2004, then on to Nozze di Figaro, Cenerentola, Die Zauberflöte, the list goes on and on. Then, a few years ago, you seemed to change direction. Indigenous pieces appear more and more frequently in your bio. Was that a conscious career decision on your part or was it more a matter of timing? Did meaningful Indigenous roles simply become more available as result of more roles being created?

That’s a large part of it, yes. I’ve had an interest in telling stories that contain truths that have been denied to Canadians for a long time. So being part of that wave of speaking the truth of Indigenous history has definitely been important to me. But I didn’t intend, at any point, to put aside all of the standard Western classical rep that I was doing before and I still love to return to it. There was a point — I think it was right after I did Missing for the first time (Pacific Opera/City Opera of Vancouver, 2017), I went and did a Messiah in London, Ontario (London Symphonia, 2017) and it was such a shock to my system. To look out at that crowd that comes to Messiah all the time and sing the words to But who may abide the day of His coming — my head was in such a space zone after playing this lawyer/university professor/lecturer/strong Indigenous woman who demands that people examine their roles in the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women — I still heard her running through my brain. I felt like I was interrogating people. And it didn’t feel good. And I remember thinking at the time, ‘I have to find my way back into not being angry.’ I also made a pact with myself that I would definitely have some standard rep for each season because it’s refreshing for me. There’s a heaviness to telling the truth. And even if it’s done like Shanawdithit with lots of hope, it’s still a really sad truth that her entire family and a race was treated in such a way that they disappeared. That really weighs on your heart and psyche.

How do you exit an experience like that? Or can you ever exit it?

It’s a work in progress always. You learn how to absorb what you need and that makes you stronger. You learn how to put into words what you’re feeling and what the injustices are and what changes desperately need to be made. You think about the generations to come. That’s a strong idea in Kwagiulth Stó:lō tradition. Seven generations ahead is what we’re looking forward to. We need to make this place a better place for them and that includes the tough work of bringing to light a lot of the facts that most people have not been party to. Sometimes it’s just the work of getting ready for another role that takes over for a little bit but it does delay how you process whatever the heaviness is. A lot of it relates to how that work is done. I referred to Yvette.

Who ran the room in Shanawdithit and made you feel you feel so supported.

Yes. I was involved in another piece that I don’t want named with a super short rehearsal period. I knew there was a rape on stage. It was in the score which arrived very, very late. I didn’t really have time to process it. Four or five days into rehearsal I finally just broke down and said, ‘I have to know how that’s going to go. You can’t keep putting it off. I need you to talk me through what you’re planning.’ And so we had a quick chat and I said, ‘Okay, why don’t we stage that right now?’ That didn’t take place. If I had had an Indigenous woman directing that piece they would have known that that was a sensitive issue and they would have talked about it in the first hour. I think it’s so important having someone in charge who can identify with a problem like that and understand and find ways of mitigating the problem before rehearsals even begin.

If it’s the piece I think it is, I thought you were extraordinary. I’ll never forget the red dress at the end.

Thank you.

We talked earlier about authentic Indigenous roles and how the availability of those roles seems to be on the rise. Or, at least, were before the pandemic hit. Do you think — being optimistic and looking ahead — do you think we’re on the cusp of a renaissance of sorts in the world of Indigenous opera?

I hope so. I remember reading a book when I first moved to Toronto from the West Coast about 20 years ago written by a Kwakiutl chief (Charles Nowell) called Smoke from Their Fires and in that book a lot of Kwakiutl traditions were outlined really, really clearly. And it dawned on me that, although I thought so much had been lost, we’ve been living that way my whole life — ways of receiving visitors and feasting and acknowledging important events in your life. So it was really good for me to realize, no matter where I go, my cultural life comes with me because I am that culture. So I think this idea of Renaissance — doing Indigenous stories. Now we have a platform. People are listening to what we have to say. But when we were colonized we were given a new set of music. Language. Rules. And that became ours, too, and we can own that, as well. I have as much right to perform Bach and Mozart and Rossini as anyone else does. I’ve been asked a few times by concert producers, ‘Will you program something and bring your drum? It would be nice if you performed something traditional.’ So I have to push back and say, ‘Actually, everything I do is traditional.’ If I do offer that once in a while, it’s because for me it fits in the program somehow. But it will never be the only thing I ever do.

If audiences ARE listening more closely to Indigenous stories these days — which, I think is true — what do you suppose is impelling that?

I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations were a starting point for making these stories happen in a public way. Grants were made available. Organizations trying to follow the recommendations will commission new works and perform them. The people who show up and sit in the seats — I think they’re thirsty to learn. We’re hearing more from Indigenous writers. They’re getting published more easily and those books are being amplified. Taking in a story musically is just another way of absorbing stories about who WE want to say we are, who WE know we are and how WE want to share that.

I’m really intrigued about how you bring your lived experience as a First Nations artist to classic mainstream opera. Do you find it more difficult to commit to the formal 18th, 19th century canon after immersing yourself more and more in the urgency of Indigenous story-telling? Are you any less inclined to tackle the old historical European roles these days?

No, I think I’m more inclined to do them. Experiences I’ve had with productions that are Indigenous — sitting in a circle of sharing, each person with a chance to say something if they want to, looking at one another in the eye, changing the equality in the room so it becomes MORE equal — I’ve taken that learning forwards into the classical pieces I’ve done as well. Making a family out of your cast means you can really trust one other. And you can play and have so much more fun with your work and dive deeper into the big fat arias because you’ve got each other’s backs. Opera is about telling stories through voice. Every culture does that. Something else I’ve learned in my adulthood. About the potlatch ceremony. Bighouses were built that had doors in the floor and almost invisible cords so that things could appear and be flown around like a giant theatre. Ladders so that people could climb in through the smoke hole. All of the masks. Blood sacks that were placed in costumes. It’s drama. Those stories were sung. It just didn’t happen to be called opera and didn’t happen to be developed in Europe. I think that if we all learn our individual histories we can all bring that into what opera is. I think that change of frame makes it more like community story-telling. Opera has always been changeable. We’re stuck in this mindset of ‘This is the-way it was written so we have to do it this way’. But we’ve just landed in the way they were doing it in the early 1900s and we just keep it going.

Now that we’re looking at who knows how long before we return to something even vaguely resembling normalcy in theatres, how do we keep that momentum for change alive? What’s your take on the subject?

I’m grasping every moment to take up opportunities to have these kinds of discussions I’m having with you. And reaching out to whatever people want to share from the Indigenous Black and People of Colour communities who are involved in opera to find out what their experiences have been and what we all can do to make it better going forward. Everyone is trying to figure out how to make opera more current, get audiences in, how to reach communities that don’t traditionally go to the opera and I think this is the way. You involve those communities. YOU get involved in THEIR communities and you show them your good faith by wanting to learn. And if you consult, if you ask someone their opinion and their lived experience, you have to implement it. I think all artists of every race need to be part of the planning so that the team that’s chosen to put a production together is the right team for it. That’s what I’m working towards. Getting us all in the room, at the table from the beginning.