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It has involved several well-known people in the world of opera and other musical and theatrical works. Directed by Rhoda Levine, the cast included Eugene Perry, Patrick Kilcoyne, Arnold Rawls, William Ferguson, Kristopher Irmiter, Mara Bonde, Phyllis Pancella, Joe Fitzgerald, Earl Howard and several other opera veterans.
Wakonda’s Dream is about a contemporary Native American family, impacted by the historical events that occurred in Nebraska in 1879 that changed the legal status of American Indians to that of “human beings under the law” for the first time in U.S. history. The opera is the story of a mother, Delores, a father, Justin, and a son, Saxon, struggling to find their place as American Indians in contemporary society. Young Jason “sees things, feels things, knows things,” which terrifies his mother. Jason is also constantly teased by an older white boy, Sonny, and his brother Jimmy due to his ethnic background. Proud of her Ponca past, Delores keeps the history of their people alive for her son. This only intensifies Jason’s ghostly connection to the long-dead Chief Standing Bear, whose legacy is revealed in a choral rendering of the famous 1879 trial. As Jason grows from childhood to manhood, Standing Bear remains his spiritual guide, while Justin’s dismissal of his Indian birthright leads to tragedy and, ultimately, redemption.
Evolution of the opera
As Anthony Davis was researching American Indian music and history, he attended the annual Ponca pow-wow in the Niobrara region of Nebraska. Among the thousands of attendees, he found himself one evening next to a woman, who, along with her son, became the inspiration for the characters of Delores and Jason.
This woman told Davis that she lived on land where Standing Bear was buried, and that her then-five-year-old son sees and speaks to the spirit of the Ponca chief. In collaboration with Komunyakaa, the two evolved a drama in which Standing Bear serves as Jason’s guide as the boy grows from childhood (in act 1) to adulthood (in act 2). Conversely, society and alcoholism serve as the antagonists, although some children, particularly Sonny could be played rather villainously.
The history of the removal of the Indians to Oklahoma and the subsequent internment and trial are revealed through this communion and through a choral reenactment of the famous trial. Davis says, "I didn’t want to create a historical narrative or an account of the trial. That could be more easily accomplished in other media like television or film. In opera you have to find a way into the story.
In this gifted child we found an artistic prism to look at history and not just present history. Having a character who can envision the past enables you to realize the past in the present. [In Wakonda’s Dream] the past has a concrete effect on everyone in the opera." Komunyakaa, who was unable to attend the pow-wow with Davis, was, in his own words, "quite taken with the idea” of the visionary child, and “built the opera around that concept and process of discovery."
The opera’s stage director, Rhoda Levine, suggested Komunyakaa as librettist. She had had experience working with him on a project through Northwestern University. The composer and poet immediately agreed to collaborate at an introductory meeting held in the offices of New York City Opera in December 2002. Komunyakaa knew of Anthony Davis’ work before the meeting, and was intrigued by the potential partnership. Of his writing process for the project, Komunyakaa says, "I knew I wanted to stay very close to poetry in writing the libretto." He notes that his work "has always embraced aspects of history as well as the imagination."
When he was invited to write a libretto that included the history of the Standing Bear trial, he was amazed by the fact that American Indians in the late 1870s were not thought of as human beings, were denied property ownership and couldn’t appear in a court of law. Rhoda Levine, who was also brought on as creative consultant during the development of the project, also previously worked with Davis. Among her credits, she served in the same capacity as both director and dramaturge with Davis on X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X when it premiered at New York City Opera in 1986.
About her role throughout the development of Wakonda’s Dream, Levine frequently refers to herself as the "audience advocate," a term she prefers to dramaturge. Levine describes the role of history in the story: "If one denies one's past, one's future is in some way impaired because your past informs your sense of the future. If you deny your roots, you lose a sense of your own identity. If one feels punished not by what they do but because of who they are – which is how Justin feels in our story – there is a sense of disconnect. He wants nothing to do with his native past. He feels it has limited his opportunities. But our past will always enrich who we are. That is the theme of Wakonda’s Dream, and it is a universal theme."
Upon hearing Wakonda’s Dream, those familiar with X or other Davis works will be surprised by his inclusion of real "songs." Listeners will also hear blues, jazz and gospel, and well as underlying Native American rhythms, as interpreted by the composer. Anthony Davis describes the score for Wakonda’s Dream in this way: :Generally, what I’m doing is a synthesis. I have created something new from many diverse sources. My background draws on the African American tradition, jazz particularly. I developed my own voice as an opera composer that hopefully is not imitative or derivative. My work has a rhythmic quality to it, with rhythmic structure as its foundation. Even in my choral writing, the choir is like a drum."
Vision for production
Levine describes the stage setting as "very simple. The action takes place on a raked surface surrounded by the chorus and a company of American Indian dancers. They are on stage throughout the entire performance, like spirits." Set designer Peter Harrison says, “The scenic design for Wakonda’s Dream approaches the piece on several levels to reflect the psychological and spiritual realities which co-exist musically and in the libretto. The unmoored world of Justin and his family is a floating raked earthen plain, littered with the detritus of contemporary Native American existence – nature that has been drained of the life and fertility it once held for native people – and filled with the trash of civilization: a broken motorcycle, old tires, crates, abandoned rusty oil drum, etc." He continues, "The plain is also, on another level, the place where past ancestors have seen the Spirit of the earth, danced their shaman dances, and buried their dead to find a peace the modern world begrudges them. When Sonny or Arlington are on stage, I want them to stand out apart from the dancers, while the Labelles seem like they are more at peace while on stage."
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