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A bittersweet but potent legacy

Opera Omaha embraces the Ponca history and culture in a gripping 'Wakonda's Dream.'

March 13, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

OMAHA — Old steakhouses are closing to make way for lighter cuisine. The arts scene is burgeoning. Gas stations advertise ethanol. Nebraska's popular Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, is an outspoken opponent of the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq. Opera Omaha has premiered seven new operas, which it commissioned, in the last 15 years.

The Heartland of America is changing. And if the premiere at Opera Omaha of Anthony Davis' wrenching "Wakonda's Dream" -- given its third and last performance Sunday in the ornate Orpheum Theater -- is any indication, the transformation is occurring at least partly because of this city's willingness to look deeply and honestly at itself, past and present.

Several years ago, the company came up with the idea for a politically correct celebration of local lore. In 1876, the U.S. government forcibly removed the Ponca Indians from their Nebraska homeland to Oklahoma.

Unable to survive where the tribe couldn't practice its traditional hunting, Ponca Chief Standing Bear returned illegally with many of his people. Not all survived the journey, and Standing Bear was promptly arrested. In a landmark trial, the Ponca chief put down his tomahawk in exchange for the court finally recognizing Native Americans as "persons within the law."

Here was a historic moment in American civil rights, and Opera Omaha might have left it at that. In fact, as the opera makes clear, Standing Bear's victory was bittersweet. He recognized that Native Americans had to give up part of their culture to remain on their land yet still were not given full citizenship.

"Wakonda's Dream," with an eloquent, powerful libretto by Yusef Komunyakaa, takes as its subject not Standing Bear's story but his legacy. Davis is the composer of operas about Malcolm X, Patty Hearst and the Amistad slave uprising. Komunyakaa is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who often relates contemporary struggles to history. Both are African American academics who take on complex issues in difficult work that accepts no simple solutions.

What they have done in "Wakonda's Dream" is to relate the Native American experience to the African American in the same way Verdi made Ethiopians and Egyptians essentially Italians in "Aida." There is no literal transference, of course. But opera is an art form uniquely qualified to apply the native language of one culture to illumination of another. And when the technique works, as it does in "Aida" and "Wakonda's Dream," the result is pan-cultural in a way that makes art personal and universal at the same time.

The opera tells the story of a modern Nebraskan Native American family. The father fixes motorcycles, disdains his heritage, drinks and fights inner demons. His son, sensitive to discrimination (he has a white girlfriend), is a dreamer and visionary.

As a tragedy unfolds in which Justin Labelle, the father, accidentally kills his son, Jason, Davis and Komunyakaa explore the unresolved, potentially deadly conflicts underneath all cultural assimilation. Justin, in effect, takes up Standing Bear's tomahawk, but it has become a weapon of self-destruction.

The exploration occurs in many ways. Davis' musical language is laced with jazz of all periods. He is an accomplished pianist and improviser. His harmonic style is unsettled, taking what it needs from the 20th and 21st centuries. Ditto his rhythmic techniques, in which meters are continually changing. He knows how to treat the voice operatically. He brings in advanced electronics.

"Wakonda's Dream" begins and ends in ritual, with Jason seeking guidance from the apparition of Standing Bear. The score starts with an alluring improvised soundscape of nature by Earl Howard and ends with a wailing saxophone over a repeated Minimalist riff and a chorus chanting "Wa-kon-da-a," evoking the divine Ponca spirit.

In the mainly narrative first act, the child Jason dreams of Standing Bear after hearing stories of him from his mother, Delores. In the second act, the teenage Jason becomes a serious channeler of Standing Bear. He has two remarkable scenes with the chief. Both singers are tenors, and at times we cannot tell whether Standing Bear is meant to be a ghost or an alter ego, especially as the opera moves from narrative to ritual and from prose to poetry.

Rhoda Levine directed cleanly. The tribal chorus remained present throughout, silhouetted in the back and stepping forward during dream sequences. The American Indian Dance Theatre brought a haunting movement to the affecting apotheosis, which felt like a combination of New Orleans funeral and Ponca powwow.

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