Sundance - Review of World Premiere of an Original Opera by Matthew J Walton
"Listen to me! Listen! I am the Indian voice.
Hear me crying out of the wind,
Hear me crying out of the silence.
I am the Indian voice. Listen to me!
I speak for our ancestors,
They cry out to you from the unstill grave.
I speak for the children yet unborn,
They cry out to you from the unspoken silence.
We are your own conscience calling to you.
We are you yourself
crying unheard within you
Put your ear to the earth
and hear my heart beating there.
Put your ear to the wind
and hear me speaking there.
We are the voice of the earth,
of the future,
of the mystery.
- Leonard Peltier
The story of the trial and incarceration of Leonard Peltier has many facets that make it surprisingly translatable to opera. Peltier's story is not widely known, especially to the youngest generation, because it occurred thirty years ago, with Peltier being literally hidden away in a prison cell for most of that time, making what must often seem, to him and his many supporters, like a futile symbolic sacrifice of his life as a political prisoner. Yet, never daunted, Peltier's supporters work tirelessly for his freedom. Staying close to the facts of the story surrounding the case, the opera shows that the lesson to be learned from the saga of Leonard Peltier is morally ambiguous, at best. The issue is one that runs deep and is rooted in Native American history. There can be no convenient resolution, no tying up of sub-plots, and no closure, because the story, in and of itself, has never ended. From the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, the opera reveals that, for Native Americans, there has not been an acceptable level of progress on the issues of social progress or social justice in a land that prides itself on justice and progress.
The triumph of Sundance, a new and distinctively American opera with music by Matthew J. Walton and libretto by Leonard Walton, is that the expertise in other areas of its composer, an honors graduate in Music Composition who also holds an MA in Political Science from Syracuse University, has created something relatively new, educational, incredibly moving, and emotionally powerful - all within a familiar and traditional format.
"Ghost Shirts of Wounded Knee, 1890"
Narrator Alex deMontigny, who is from the Lakota Sioux and Nez Perce Native American bloodlines, speaks as the forthright Peltier, using the words that Peltier, himself, has said over the years. The opera begins with an artistic interpretation and revelation of the sometimes shocking events at Wounded Knee in 1890 - well after the Civil War and the Battle of Little Bighorn (Custer's "Last Stand") - when the US cavalry was beginning to round up and disarm the remaining Native Americans. The Ghost Dance was an attempt of a group of North American Indian tribes to further separate themselves from the white man and the religious doctrines they were forcing upon the tribal peoples. Begun by a prophet named Wovoka, his vision embodied the belief that the white man would disappear from the Earth after a natural catastrophe and that the Indian dead would return bringing with them the old way of life that would then last forever. The first dance was held by Wovoka around 1889. Word spread quickly and the Ghost Dance was accepted by many tribes including the Sioux who added the element of a ghost shirt. Among those killed at Wounded Knee were women and children wearing their ghost shirts. The Ghost Dance continued to be danced in more southern tribes, but the end of the movement really came with the deaths at Wounded Knee in 1890.
Chief Sitting Bull had been killed while the calvary was attempting to round him up. Hearing of this, Chief Big Foot led his people south to seek protection at the Pine Ridge Reservation. The army intercepted the band on December 28 and brought them to the edge of the Wounded Knee to camp. The following morning, December 29, 1890, the soldiers entered the camp demanding the all Indian firearms be relinquished. A medicine man named Yellow Bird advocated resistance, claiming the Ghost Shirts would protect them. One of the soldiers tried to disarm a deaf Indian named Black Coyote. A scuffle ensued and the firearm discharged. The silence of the morning was broken and soon other guns echoed in the river bed. At first, the struggle was fought at close quarters, but when the Indians ran to take cover, the Hotchkiss artillery opened up on them, cutting down men, women, children alike, the sick Big Foot among them. When the smoke cleared and the shooting stopped, approximately 300 Sioux were dead, Big Foot among them.
Wounded Knee 1890
"This has given me a goal in life...I will be able to look back and say that I did something worthwhile..."
In subsequent scenes, we see the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz island, California, by Native American activists. Leonard Peltier played no part, but this occupation inspired his own political consciousness. Early in the morning on November 20, 1969, seventy-nine American Indians, including students, married couples and six children, sailed to Alcatraz and began the 19-month occupation of the island. Despite the Coast Guard's attempted blockade, the group disembarked successfully. Shortly after arriving, they listed demands of the US Government, including the return of Alcatraz to the American Indians and sufficient funding to build, maintain and operate an Indian cultural complex and a university. Though the US government agreed to negotiate, they rejected all of the demands the occupiers had proposed. The occupation ended in 1971, with disillusionment after various tragedies and troubles on the island, along with the turn of public opinion against the occupiers. Despite public criticism, a spirit was reborn during those years. In the words of Adam Fortune Eagle:
"To view Alcatraz from its end is a mistake. It must always be known that, more than anything else, Alcatraz brought us together. And it brought the problems of Native Americans to national attention. It may seem strange to someone in the future to imagine that we could have been unified and inspired by a bleak and inhospitable old prison that was used to punish and ruin so many other lives."
see photos here
A Return to Wounded Knee
because the worst is in ourselves,
the worst lives in each of us,
along with the best.
Let us forgive the worst
in each of us
and all of us
so that the best
in each of us
and all of us
may be free."
The audience is then led to back to the Pine Ridge reservation, 85 years after the Wounded Knee massacre - and how far had the Native Americans come? We see the reclaiming of Wounded Knee, and the confusion of the early morning in June, 1975. Sometime in the late morning, two FBI agents drove onto Indian land near Oglala, South Dakota, a small village on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Here a shoot-out occurred in whith both agents and an Indian man were killed. Although large numbers of FBI agents, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) police, state trooopers, sheriff’s deputies and vigilantes surrounded the property within an hour of the first shots (no one has never been able to ascertain who shot first), the numerous Indians involved in the shoot-out escaped into the hills. Of the four men eventually indicted for the two killings, one was later released because the evidence was ‘weak’. Two others were acquitted in July 1976 when a jury concluded that, although they had fired at the agents, they had done so in self-defense. The fourth man was Peltier.
We see the grim and dubious process of the scapegoating of Peltier by the US Justice system. He has been incarcerated at Leavenworth Penitentiary for almost 30 years, despite alleged misconduct, including falsification of evidence, by various U.S. officials, which led to his conviction.
The opera is set to music composed and conducted by Walton and performed by an extremely talented six-piece chamber ensemble consisting of Linda Greene on flute, David Abrams on clarinet, Steven Heyman on piano, James Krehbiel on violin, Florent Renard-Payen on cello, and Phil de Chateauvieux on electronic keyboard. The music integrated very well with the performers, and the words of the libretto, which are words that were actually spoken or written at one point in history and raised to art by Leonard Walton, brought enunciation and clarity to the music's occasional instrumental complexity.
In Beethoven's one and only opera Fidelio, a prisoner (Florestan) is being held for life as a political prisoner by his mortal enemy, a wicked governor named Pizzaro, and to be sure Florestan is forgotten by the public, Pizzaro falsely announces Florestan's death - placing his prisoner in the lowest dungeon and planning to starve him to death. Walton's opera is worthy of Beethoven's story in the context that Leonard Peltier has been held indefinitely for a crime he swears he never committed, and his imprisoners (the US Government) have virtually silenced the mainstream media about Peltier's many active supporters and pleas for clemency; and have recently moved him from Leavenworth to the maximum-security US Prison at Terre Haute, Indiana, where Peltier was immediately placed in "the hole" (solitary confinement). Metaphorically speaking, Pelitier is a political prisoner who is being starved of his freedom while being declared "dead" by media silence.
The singing talents of Amanda Newhouse Carnie (soprano), Jonathan Howell (tenor), Carol Ansell Spradling (mezzo), Eric Johnson (bass), Uma Maedke (mezzo-soprano), William Black (baritone), and the rest of the cast, along with the directing talent of Victoria Harder King, production of (teacher of voice) Neva Pilgrim, and set design by Jarrod Bray, all added to the effective drama. The form and words reach out to the audience and ask them to consider not only the place, Pine Ridge, and the time of night when the confusion of the Pine Ridge shootings took place; but also the place in history where Peltier was standing on that fateful night when it all culminated in the swirling violence of a political showdown. The ghosts of Wounded Knee 1890 were by his side that night, as was the spirit of the Native Americans who had hoped for a great cultural awakening and political acceptance at Alcatraz Island circa 1969, the same time that white American youth were rebelling and searching at Woodstock.
"Silence is the voice of complicityThe most important and effective message the opera sends out is that the Peltier case has clearly not received the quality of attention that it deserves and that the collective voice of the Native American is still waiting to be heard by a government which has been all too willing, throughout US history, to silence it.
But silence is impossible
Silence is a message,
just as doing nothing is an act.
Let who you are ring out and resonate
in every word and every deed.
Become who you are…
What you do is who you are
You are your own comeuppance
You become your own message
You are the message..."
The spirit of the Native Americans beg you - listen.