Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.

Friday, April 07, 2006

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.”


At 5:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would love to see or listen to a recording of the opera. What can be done to help make this possible before the last generations of performers is gone?

At 6:40 PM, Blogger ross said...

Thanks for the comment. As it turns out, a grad student at UVic - and experienced opera director - has been doing a lot of work to resurrect Tzinquaw. Keep watching this space, or send me your email address, to find out more!

At 10:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frank Morrison is my great-grandfather. I recently dug out an old copy of the opera (unfortunately, without the score) because I bought a book about Cowichan and while it mentioned the 1950s opera, Tzinquaw, it did not mention Morrison at all.

At 11:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have gone back into my trunk and I have a copy of the score. Thick orange cover with red plastic binding. 44 pages of handwritten music.

At 8:26 PM, Anonymous Greg Shea said...

Hello. My name is Greg Shea. I live in Lake Cowichan and am a member of the Spirit Drummers based in Duncan. Our group originated at the 2008 North American Indigenous Games (NAIG). We began due to the vision of Ron George, an elder within the Cowichan Tribe. He was a Tzinquaw dancer back in the 1960s. Louise McMurray, the director of the 8th Cowichan International Aboriginal Festival of Film & Art taking place in Duncan April 17-20, 2012, is trying to find a movie made of this amazing and important opera. According to Ron the earliest production was filmed. At the BC Archives in Victoria I was told that there are audio tapes available. So my question is, does anyone know of a movie made of this opera? Apparently it was redone in 1972 and maybe 1982. Louise would love to have copies made for distribution at this year's film festival, especially to the only two surviving members of the original production, Gus Joe and Margaret Roland. If anyone has any information that will be of help, please contact me at: gadrogeek@hotmail.com
Thank you.

At 9:32 AM, Anonymous john wm charlie sr said...

margaret charlie [roland] is actually the only surviving member of the original group.

At 8:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Abel Joe led everyone in song most every Sunday at St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church throughout the 70s and 80s, as I remember. He was a constant in the parish, with a BIG voice and some strong organ chords and drum to back it. We sang both the uncool 'traditional hymns' in English and the hymns in a more 'Cowichan tradition' with Cowichan words, notes and tempo. Still do, every week at that church. All beautiful, true and powerful. Abel Joe and Frank Morrison are intelligent men of their time and generation. Could it be that the critics of this opera want Abel Joe and Frank Morrison to be something they are not?

At 8:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also interesting, once when I was visiting the Cowichan Native Centre, I heard a recording of Abel Joe playing in the gift shop. I immediately knew it was him. He was singing a Cowichan song. I told the lady in the shop that I loved his voice and I that remember him well from St. Anne's, and that I felt so lucky to come in just as she was playing it in her shop. I asked if I could buy a recording. She told me very seriously that the recording could not be played by just anybody, anytime. Now I think I was fortunate to have heard him sing freely all those Sundays. "Politics", or what people think they must do ...just gets in the way of us really moving together


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