Pochahontas performance stirs controversy

There appears to be some controversy about Pohahontas, an original opera to be performed this Thursday evening at 7:30 pm Marshall School Fregeau Auditorium.

The Duluth News Tribune wrote a front page (above the fold) story on Monday about one woman’s complaint concerning the opera and today’s newspaper shows a guest column and two letters to the editor in support of the opera and it’s authenticity. While the woman who is the focus of Monday’s front page DNT story purports that efforts were not supportive of the local Native American culture, others from the local Native American community claim otherwise.

The opera performance is sponsored by the local Duluth Festival Opera and is an original music drama written by a regional woman about the true story of a Native American woman caught between two worlds. It is a very moving music drama that has been successfully debuted in the state of Virginia. Thursday’s performance will be Minnesota’s debut of the music drama. A discussion will be held following the opera performance.

Help keep the arts alive and come and see this unique and lovely new music drama and judge for yourself … and weigh in on the discussion.

18 Comments

Metalist

about 11 years ago

I find the articles and letters interesting.  As someone from a Native, but not Ojibway, descent I find some of the actions of the local tribe interesting.

It appears to my biased viewpoint that the Duluth News Tribune likes to create controversy.  But then, I guess that does sell newspapers, and they do have to run a business.

I also found it very interesting that the photo in the newspaper of the woman playing the lead appeared, in my less-than-perfect eye, to be someone of Asian descent.

I'm interested in reading the comments of my fellow community members on this "issue."

Nick

about 11 years ago

It's unfair to criticize the Duluth Festival Opera when race can't be a factor in 'hiring' performers.  

Christa Lawler's reporting shows the DFO seemed to do lots of things right from the very beginning.  One (and so far only one) person disagreed, spawning one big story and a flurry of counter-opinions.  I noticed the DNT didn't allow comments on the article

Pocahontas is a State grant-funded performance.  Physical attributes are an important part of casting but I wonder if govt. grants require some sort of EEO.

edgeways

about 11 years ago

Although it isn't something I care about I can understand why someone may have concerns about this, although, tbh,as a white fellow I know my perception has very little bearing on the whole issue. That said, not taking ethnicity into account when casting specifically ethnic roles would be pretty silly, unless you are doing so for a very specific purpose and trying to make a particular point. I would think without serious rewrite, Porgy and Bess, for example, would be pretty anemic if cast with a bunch of Caucasians. 

And yeah, I'm sure the DNT frames things to create more strife than there actually is. And it is actually  good thing their comment section is closed. News source websites that have comment sections tend to become clogged with the worst of humanity, honest to god.

mega mildred

about 11 years ago

This isn't exactly on the blackface level.

Actors act, they pretend to be someone different than who they are. Don't bring YOUR bullshit racism into this, please.

David Beard

about 11 years ago

I am mostly concerned about the use of state funds to subsidize this project.  According to Duluth-Superior Magazine ("A Huge Grant for the Duluth Festival Opera") the Opera needed to identify native partners to enhance its application.

If a private opera wanted to hire an all-female midget-wrestler cast to produce this play, I could care less.  The second we spend $100,000 of state money on it, I wonder whether the standard changes.

What do you think?

Barrett Chase

about 11 years ago

As a person who lives with the author of this article, I can assure you that no one was out "to create controversy" or "to create more strife than there actually is."

Claire

about 11 years ago

The fact that the critic interviewed in the report in the DNT disclosed that she'd worked on a grant proposal for this project -- but she didn't think, she said, trying to rationalize why she did that -- they would get funding totally undermined her credibility with me and makes me think there's something else going on with her going public.

And Robert Powless, whom I've met many times, has a lot of credibility with me. If he's OK with it, I'm OK with it.

edgeways

about 11 years ago

This isn't exactly on the blackface level.

Actors act, they pretend to be someone different than who they are. Don't bring YOUR bullshit racism into this, please.

I didn't say anything about blackface, my point was more on the lines that I could understand why someone might be upset if a role specifically about someone of a particular ethnicity was played by someone of a different ethnicity (or gender, or attribute XYZ). 

Perhaps you could enlighten me as to what points were racist? That's an awfully loaded term you play fast and loose with there.

(Incidentally the twee movie, Twilight has come under similar criticisms)

(Sorry B, I didn't really meant to implicate C like that. In the past few months I've been indirectly involved in two separate cases where DNT framing had made situations worse then they where, so am on a little of a hair trigger irt the paper currently.)

hbh1

about 11 years ago

I like and respect Dr. Powless, but he doesn't have a lot of sway with the local Native American community, I gather. Probably because he's (if I remember correctly) an Oneida and not from around here. I've heard from a number of people in the past that his being used to "speak for" or be a representative of the Native community irks many. That's not necessarily his fault--he's called upon by the newspaper and white organizations around here all the time in that way. And of course, as a professor, he is an obvious authority. All I'm saying is that the disconnect between his opinion and the people involved in the protest is not unexpected or unusual.

hbh1

about 11 years ago

Also, I think a very serious effort should have been made to hire First Nations singers. The protest and problem could have been foreseen and dealt with if there'd been a very public effort to do so.

DJ/MN

about 11 years ago

Sounds like a case of sour grapes on the part of the person who worked on the grant because she didn't think the thing would be funded. What a bizzare attitude.

Voula Heffernan

about 11 years ago

My heart is sad to learn about this division within our community... within the Native American peoples and all others. I would like to invite those who are trying to make a point to come to the opera tonight and respectfully join in on the discussion that will follow the performance.

The woman with the original complaint wrote a letter to the editor in today's DNT speaking about individuals within the Native American community, including her, who are only one voice for these peoples. And now because of her voice, we will have people from outside of our own community joining in to demonstrate outside the opera performance.  A respectful learning circle discussion following the opera performance might become an opportunity to open hearts, minds and for learning by all. And it is an opportunity for diverse cultures to join together and become one voice. 

The letter writer today states that opera is an art form only for those of privilege and accuses those of us who plan on attending tonight to flaunt our privileged status by attending.  I thought that opera originated as music for the common people, never for privileged people. I am for all art in our world and would hate to see ways to censor what artists provide. Art brings us to higher ground and helps us learn and find joy through non-traditional avenues. 

I am a second generation American and not of Native American heritage and so I might not have an understanding of some issues. Am I missing something in my analysis?  

It is so hard to keep all forms of art alive in our community. I hope we may move to higher ground as a community and with a common voice that respects others but also allows all art to flourish.

wildgoose

about 11 years ago

A few comments.

First, Lyz Jaakola is the woman who was quoted in the DNT.  Umm, is there a reason people aren't using her name?  Secondly, Lyz is my cousin (disclosure, rare for anonymous bloggers, I know).  She is definitely Native American, not Asian, and that probably doesn't matter but, why question a person's race?  Thirdly, Lyz studied opera very seriously, in Italy if I recall correctly.  She is an amazing singer and she actually leads a group of local Native American Ojibwe singers AND she is an instructor at FDL College AND she is deeply embedded in the community and respected by many people.  She is not raising her voice all by herself. It seems very odd to me that it was impossible to find talented, trained or trainable Native American people for the principal roles.  

The romantacization (if that's a word) of Pocahontas in American culture is, in my opinion, another example of European Americans (the victors) whitewashing history.  Pocahontas is a lightning rod figure in Native American history for that very reason.  I remember a lot of anger in 1995 or so when the Disney story came out and it painted a technicolor, commercialized veneer on what is in reality a much more nuanced and ultimately tragic story (which is what Disney has done with nearly all of its stories, by the way.).  So to have a non-native person in that role and in the roles of her family members could easily be interpreted as a continuation of that pattern. 

I don't know anything more about this production so I can't comment on whether it is true to the Pocahontas story or just another re-hash of the technicolor legend.   

I'm glad this controversy has surfaced, I hope that this will be another opportunity for growth and change, and not just a chance to point a finger back at a critic with a valid observation.  And for pete's sake, please validate who she is if not also what she's said by using her name in your comments, people. It's Lyz.

Barrett Chase

about 11 years ago

Just to clarify, Wildgoose, Metalist never said that Lyz Jaakola was Asian, but that the woman in the DNT's photo of the opera production was Asian.

Voula Heffernan

about 11 years ago

Wildgoose: 
Thank you for your comments. Your comments have been the only ones I've heard so far that seemed to give a good explanation of why this opera might generate such controversy in the Native American community. I think it would have helped to have you at the performance tonight to see the opera and judge for yourself if it was the Disney version or not ... and then have you join in the discussion that followed the performance.  

I don't doubt that your cousin is a talented person with credibility. She, like all of us, is a person deserving to be heard. Her standing and support in the Native American community is not questioned, nor her talents and credibility. Tonight's discussion by the Native Americans who were performers in tonight's production (and others - both in the audience and on stage) brought out the pulls on all sides felt by a community. BTW, I use my full name here and not a moniker, fully disclosing who I am. But you and others do use anonymity.  I assume your cousin might not like her name used unless she writes in here herself. I was only trying to be respectful of her. 

I like your thought that we use the unveiling of this controversy to learn from each other. Fingers have been pointed in all directions and taking sides does not help. Let's move from blame to one of respect and learning. I have learned from your comments and hope we all open our minds and hearts to learn and grow.

wildgoose

about 11 years ago

I think you're great Voula, and not just because I had a crush on your daughter in high school, either (in fact I forgot all about that til just now).  You have a great sensibility and a deep thirst for ... connection, if I may presume.  And I only mean to be vaguely anonymous, keeps the spammers and search engines at bay.

Voula Heffernan

about 11 years ago

Wildgoose:  Guess I didn't realize that the monikers are so easily connected to names, having lived on the other side of the moon here. Very sweet comment by you and I thank you. Of course with all the snarky stuff here on PDD, my comments must make eyes roll and suggest an old person ... and I am! BTW ... my daughter would have been thrilled to know in her insecure life as a teenager that someone had a crush on her back then.

RE: this thread ... not trying to be holier than thou here ... just a hope that we all at least try to understand each other a bit where it counts. But then that's what happens when you reach a certain age. You're either hopeful or jaded ... or, in my case, it's both depending upon the day. Good comments by all here on this thread.

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