Original opera sheds new light on Shanawdithit, the last Beothuk

Almost 200 years after her death, a Gander-born composer is completing an opera based on the life of the woman considered the last of the Beothuk.

Newfoundland-born composer looks to Indigenous artists and Shanawdithit's sketches for inspiration

Dean Burry opera on the life of Shanawdithit, more than two decades in the making, will debut in Toronto and St. John's in the Spring of 2019. (Dean Burry)

You could say that when it comes to composing music, Dean Burry likes to take his time. Work on his latest opera, based on the life of Shanawdithit, began 23 years ago while he was in university.

Burry has composed numerous scores since then — including The Brothers Grimm for the Canadian Opera Company, widely believed to be the most performed Canadian opera ever.

Those sketches are her voice exactly.- Dean Burry

However, his idea to capture the true essence of Shanawdithit would prove challenging. The work took on multiple forms over the years, and was shelved for an extended period. Burry says he felt he wasn't able to capture the sound suitable to honour the last of the Beothuk.

"It just seemed that it was an immense story," he said.

"I guess it was just a story that, in my mind, demanded to be told."

The right time

It was last year's Canada 150 celebrations, and the Indigenous protests against them, that reignited Burry's creative spark for the project. He felt it was the time to offer a different perspective of Shanawdithit​.

"Growing up in central, the story of Shanawdithit​ and the Beothuk was something that was always around me," remembers Burry.

Shanawdithit, who was likely born in 1801 and is believed to be the subject of the above painting, revealed much of what is known about the Beothuk people before her death in 1829. ((CBC))

"Back in the late '70s and early '80s when we were being taught about these things, it was definitely a very one-sided story," he said.

"Shanawdithit​ and the Beothuk were a paragraph in our history books and that was it, pretty much."

Now living in Ontario, Burry developed a love of musical theatre and opera as a child growing up in Gander. The connection between Newfoundland culture and the music he composes began there too, and he says the province's storytelling is the creative force behind much of his work over the last two decades.

"A lot of Newfoundland stories that have seeped into my brain have come out now in various projects that I've done over the years."

A non-traditional perspective

Leaving behind the traditional view of Shanawdithit​ as a meek captive, Burry has taken on the challenge of fleshing her out as the full person she was. Without any living Beothuk descendents to provide expertise, he is collaborating with a network of Indigenous artists including Yvette Nolan, a librettist and member of the Algonquin First Nation.

Artist Gerald Squires created this statue of Shanawdithit near the Beothuk Interpretation Centre in Boyd's Cove. It was unveiled in the year 2000. (CBC )

"I really needed guidance — people to walk with — in this process. Yvette Nolan was someone I had worked with about 20 years ago ... she is a tremendous conduit to the rest of the indigenous community," he said.

"Shortly after that we were able to bring on board First Nations artists from across the country."

The art of Shanawdithit

Shanawdithit​ may have died in 1829 but her influence on Burry's opera goes beyond simply her memory. The entire project is based on historical documents and the sketches she created in the last six months of her life after being brought to St. John's by William Cormack, who encouraged her to tell the story of the Beothuk through art.

This plaque in memory of Shanawdithit stands in Bannerman Park in St. John's. It was unveiled in 2007 to honour the last-known Beothuk. (CBC )

"Those sketches are her voice exactly," said Burry.

"We can't go and talk to Shanawdithit​ ... but the artwork that she created ... paint an incredible picture of this culture, and they come directly from her."

Burry admits there is considerable creative work ahead before the opera is completed. He says it is an exciting time in the process, which will eventually include sounds of nature and the seasons to create the world of Shanawdithit and the Beothuk.

The opera, Shanawdithit,  is a co-production between Tapestry Opera in Toronto and Newfoundland's Opera on the Avalon. The completed work will debut in Toronto in late May 2019 and in St. John's in June the same year.

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