The Indian Opera
It sold out five nights at the Royal Theatre. The BBC raved about it. But it seems unlikely that anyone alive today will ever see Tzinquaw – a full opera based on a Quw’utsun (Cowichan) legend, sung in English with the melodies of ancestral Quw’utsun songs.
The story of this remarkable opera began in the 1940s, when Frank Morrison, a music teacher at a school in Duncan, became friends with Abel Joe, one of his Quw’utsun students. Joe trusted Morrison enough to teach him his family’s song – each family had its own, which no one else could sing – and together they worked it out on a piano. Joe introduced Morrison to more families and more songs, and after several years, they had enough music that Joe thought it could accompany the retelling of a legend, about the time his starving people called upon the Thunderbird (Tzinquaw) to carry off a killer whale that had driven all the fish from Cowichan Bay. After two years of rehearsals with an all-Cowichan cast (Abel Joe sang lead tenor), their Tzinquaw premiered in Duncan in November of 1950, and toured across B.C. to critical acclaim. “This original and unique production is the signal for the rebirth of North American folklore,” said a visiting New York Times critic. “Certain it is that the North American stage has seen nothing to compare with the scope of this all-Indian pageant.”
James Hoffman, a theatre professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, says Tzinquaw remains one of the most important works in B.C. history – it’s the operatic equivalent of a Cowichan sweater, combining the best of Native and Anglo talents. But aside from a brief revival in 1967, it hasn’t been staged since the ‘50s. “The situation’s very political,” says Hoffman: the Quw’utsun people claim rights to the songs, Morrison’s relatives on Salt Spring own the script, and neither seem willing to sign a treaty allowing it to be produced.
To learn more about this fascinating story, visit Bob Akerman’s museum of native artifacts on Salt Spring Island. Of course, you should also see the Khowutzun Tzinquaw Dancers, who perform regularly in Duncan – but not the repertoire from the controversial opera itself.
UPDATE (November 17, 2009): Alison Greene, an experienced opera director and UVic grad student in theatre history, has been pursuing the original score of Tzinquaw, hoping it might be a forgotten masterpiece due for revival. But Greene told me that when she finally heard a recording of it in the CBC archives, she was crestfallen.
“The ancestral Quw’utsun songs are wonderful,” said Greene, “but most of it [Tzinquaw] sounds like church music. Morrison lifted pieces right out of the English hymnal.” Morrison claimed he’d faithfully transcribed traditional Quw’utsun songs for his score, but they were unrecognizable on stage. He made the piano the principal instrument instead of drums, and eliminated the lyrical repetitions – the repetitions in First Nations song create a trancelike state for communion with the supernatural – replacing them with cringeworthy European stanzas. (Example: Our old chief calls a meeting here / In hope yet to revive / The strength that’s needed now to fight / To keep our folks alive.)
Greene notes that in the 1940s, the federal Indian Act was so strictly applied that it was a criminal offence to perform traditional songs and dances anywhere off-reserve without permission. By the 1950s, middle-class British Columbians were becoming aware of the importance of First Nations to our regional identity, and that may have accounted for the effusive praise for the show. (“The struggle of the Cowichans continues through the medium of Tzinquaw,” the Daily Colonist wrote.) Other writers were critical, however. The poet Dorothy Livesay wrote to a newspaper suggesting that Morrison remove his “improvements” from the native songs: “Do we send white artists in to Stanley Park to touch up the totem poles?”
Many in the Cowichan nation are still proud of Tzinquaw, but Greene doubts it will be restaged. “It’s a work of its time. It’s a museum piece.”