Duluth opera has non-Indian cast in 'Pocahontas'


An attempt to stage an opera intended to celebrate American Indian culture is now facing an accusation of racial insensitivity.

The Duluth Festival Opera’s production of "Pocahontas: A Woman of Two Worlds," is a one-act chamber opera about the young American Indian woman who eased relations between American Indians and Europeans in the 1600s.

When the cast was named, no American Indians landed principal roles – not even Pocahontas, a Powhatan Indian.

Duluth Festival Opera director Craig Fields said auditions didn’t generate interest from the American Indian opera performers from around the country. But Lyz Jaakola, an operatic mezzo soprano and member of the Fond du Lac Band, said the DFO didn’t try hard enough or in the right ways and that there is no excuse for non-natives to "play Indian" in 2011.

"Pocahontas" was originally commissioned by the Virginia Opera and Virginia Arts Festival as part of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.

It was written by Minnesota composer Linda Tutas Haugen and librettist Joan Vail Thorne. It made its world premiere in 2007.

Haugen and Jaakola met to talk about "Pocahontas" while the DFO’s production was still in the concept stages. Jaakola said she saw photographs of the show in Virginia, which featured non-American Indians in soloist roles.

"I told her that the only way it was ever going to be successful in Minnesota is if they hired Native people throughout," Jaakola said. "Maybe in Virginia they felt it was a success there. But my sense is that they have a different climate there than here. I wanted to let her know in Minnesota we have a very healthy Native population who are not afraid to use their voice and let people know if things are not how we think they should be."

Jaakola said she wanted to see the production done right and wrote a letter of intent for a grant proposal to the Minnesota State Arts Board stating that she would help the Duluth Festival Opera find native people to play traditional music. But she said she never thought the project would get funding.

"I really didn’t," she said. "I just thought, ‘Well, the state arts board is a lot more savvy. They’ll see this: a non-native company, a non-native composer, writing for a cultural and heritage grant.’"

And it never got to the point of Jaakola contributing further. She clashed with Fields when her name and that of the Fond du Lac Band were included on the opera company’s fundraising letter. When she told Fields she was not going to be involved with the project, she said he told her he had listed her on the grant application as a co-director.

Karen Diver, the Fond du Lac chairwoman, declined comment on the inclusion of the band on the fundraising letter.

The opera was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Legacy Arts and Cultural Fund’s Arts Tour Minnesota Grant, which they are using to produce "Pocahontas" and tour to Grand Rapids and Burnsville.

When it came time for auditions, Fields said word was put out to American Indian communities around the country. The open tryouts were treated as "blind" auditions, he said, and they were looking for the best performer for the job.

"My personal feeling is that the work succeeds on its own merits, whether it is performed by a Native American or not," Fields said.

Fields said there are parts of the opera that call for only American Indian involvement and that Fond du Lac singers and drummers are involved with the production.

Robert Powless, an Oneida Indian and professor emeritus of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, is an adviser on the project. Powless said he approves of the casting and that characters’ ethnicities should be matched whenever it is possible, but in this case there weren’t a lot of American Indian musicians who auditioned.

Jaakola said there are a number of American Indians in the opera or musical theater business in the United States and Canada.

"If I were casting an Indian opera and I couldn’t find ‘enough Indians’ to help me, I simply wouldn’t do it," Jaakola said. "But that’s my cultural paradigm."

For an upcoming musical event Jaakola is hosting, she has gotten Jennifer Stevens, an Oneida Indian and operatic soprano, to perform.