Story of Basque whaler in Red Bay being turned into opera by Labrador student

A music student from Labrador is taking inspiration from his home by writing an opera about Basque whalers in Red Bay for his PhD thesis.

Aiden Hartery inspired by UNESCO site to write opera for music composition thesis at Western University

Aiden Hartery, a PhD student in music composition at Western University, is working on an opera that tells the story of a Basque whaler in Red Bay, Labrador. (Facebook)

A music student from Labrador is taking inspiration from his home by writing an opera about Basque whalers in Red Bay for his PhD thesis.

Aiden Hartery studies music composition at Western University in London, Ont., and was looking for ideas for his thesis.

At first he considered just doing the typical large-scale orchestral work most people in the program do, but then he started looking at the possibility of doing an opera and stories he could tell.

A panoramic photo of a bay.
The Red Bay Whaling Station on the southern coast of Labrador was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013. (UNESCO)

"Being from Labrador — my family is also from Newfoundland — and living in Ontario I personally go through spurts of homesickness," he told Labrador Morning. "Thinking about stories I sort of looked back, and the province has such a wealth of stories and tales and history."


Around the same time he was looking for an idea, UNESCO chose the Red Bay Basque Whaling Station in southern Labrador as its next World Heritage Site. That turned out to be just the inspiration Hartery needed.

"I was listening on the radio when that whole decision was being made when we were in contention for it, so I guess it was fresh on my mind," he said. "When I was looking for an idea for an opera, Red Bay just kind of came first."

Bowhead whales, like the ones seen here, were hunted by the Basque whalers in Red Bay more than 500 years ago. Aiden Hartery wants to recreate the sounds of the bowhead as well as humpbacks for his opera. (VDOS Global 2016)

Once he started digging, Hartery came across a will from a Spaniard named Juan Martinez, who became trapped in Red Bay during the winter of 1566 and died the following year.

After combing through other primary historical documents, looking at research from the 1970s and talking to historians who work at the heritage site, the story he was looking to tell started to come together.

Whale songs and 16th-century instruments

Hartery said part of his goal with the opera is to incorporate the sounds of the whales the Basque were hunting, as well as use instruments that were being played in Spain at the time Juan Martinez was alive.

"I listen to these whale songs and sort of imagine what kinds of instruments can be used to depict these sounds, and through experimentation I've been coming up with some nice combinations," he said.

"I also thought it would be interesting to bring instruments that are almost 500 years old to a modern opera."

The San Juan was a Basque vessel that was lost in the autumn of 1565 during a storm, and found submerged in only ten metres of water in Red Bay Harbour. The ship is currently being reconstructed win Spain with plans to sail it to Red Bay in the summer of 2019. (Wikipedia)

Hartery hopes to have the opera complete by summer 2018, but ideally wants to hold off on performances until 2019.

That's because in Spain there is a restoration project taking place on an 16th-century shipwreck called the San Juan, which was discovered between Red Bay and Saddle Island. It's being reconstructed as part of research to see how the Basque made their ships.

"In a perfect world I think the opera would be performed in Red Bay while the San Juan is moored in the harbour," he said.

With files from Labrador Morning