American Indian opera

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

American Indian opera is a subgenre of American music. It began with composer Gertrude Bonnin (1876-1938), also known as Zitkala-Sa ("Red Bird" in Lakota). Bonnin's own Yankton Sioux heritage informed both her libretto and music for her opera The Sun Dance, a grand opera composed with Mormon musician William F. Hanson.[1]


Unlike the "American Indianist" attempts at creating operas with American Indian themes (see selected list below) and written by non-Indians, Bonnin's opera, which premiered in 1913, was the work of an American Indian woman of musical advancement.[2] After teaching music and studying violin at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music, Bonnin worked with Hanson to compose an American Indian opera.

She performed and transcribed "Sioux melodies" to which they would add harmonies and lyrics.[3] Because American Indian melodies were an exclusively oral enterprise, the transition from Indian to Western grand opera was, according to Warburton, "like forcing a proverbial square peg into a round hole."[4] Yet, Bonnin and Hanson successfully managed the transition. She also incorporated American Indian singers and dancers into the opera.[4]

The importance of Bonnin for American Indian grand opera cannot be underestimated. Few if any American Indian operas on American Indian themes, using indigenous performers, have been composed by American Indians since her era. This Yankton woman was most likely the first indigenous composer to accomplish the feat. It must be said that she was aided by William F. Hanson, who taught at Brigham Young University and continued to create works based on Native American themes.[5][6]

Selected "Indianist" operas by non-indigenous composers[edit]

  • Nevin, Arthur F. (1907). Poia, grand opera. Carnegie Hall.
  • Cadman, Charles Wakefield (1912). Daoma: Ramala (Land of Misty Water), opera in four acts. Metropolitan Opera, New York. -- This opera was written in collaboration with Francis La Flesche (Omaha), so it is a question whether it is any more "Indianist" than Zitkala-sa's work. See Sherry L. Smith, "Francis LaFlesche and the World of Letters." American Indian Quarterly 25.4 (2001): 579-603.
  • Freer, Eleanor Everest (1927). The Chilkoot Maiden, opera in one act. Skagway, Alaska.
  • Carter, Ernest Trow (1931). The Blonde Donna: The Fiesta at Santa Barbara, opera comique. Heckscher Theater, New York.
  • Smith, Julia Frances (1939). Cynthia Parker, opera in one act. North Texas State University, Denton.

American Indian opera by American Indian composers[edit]

  • Bonnin, Gertrude, and Hanson, William F. (1913). The Sun Dance, grand opera. Premiered in Orpheus Hall, Vernal, Utah.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hafen, P. Jane, edit (2001). Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems and The Sun Dance Opera. University of Lincoln Press, pg. xiii.
  2. ^ Warburton, Thomas, edit (1999). The Sun Bride: A Pueblo Opera. A-R Editions, Inc. pg. xi
  3. ^ Warburton, pg. 126
  4. ^ a b Warburton, pg. 127
  5. ^ Catherine Parsons Smith, "An operatic skeleton on the western frontier: Zitkala-Sa, William F. Hanson, and The Sun Dance Opera", Women & Music, 1 Jan 2001, accessed 4 Dec 2008
  6. ^ "William F. Hanson", Brigham Young University, accessed 4 Dec 2008