A Duluth, Minnesota production of "Pocahontas: A Woman of Two Worlds," an opera, is facing criticism this week for failing to cast a single Native American in a principal role. Native American opera singer Lyz Jaakola told the Duluth News Tribune that after years of mixed representation in the media, "poor Pocahontas has been dragged around enough."
Adaptations of the story of Pocohontas have been delicate territory in the past. Nowhere is this more evident than in the 1995 Disney adaptation, which told the story of the beautiful Powhatan woman in colonial Jamestown who made peace between white settlers and her Native American tribe. As heartwarming as the synopsis may sound, song lyrics such as "They're savages! Savages! Dirty redskin devils! Now we sound the drums of war!" left viewers ambivalent about the stereotypical portrayals of both the colonists and the Native Americans.
For this reason, when composer Linda Tutas Haugen and librettist Joan Vail Thorne decided to write a Pocahontas opera for Virginia’s 400th anniversary celebration of Jamestown, they made sure to check their sources. According to the Duluth News Tribune, the two "researched Pocahontas, interviewed a Jamestown scholar, met with American Indians and spent time in Jamestown." Haugen said that many audience members, even Native Americans, "saw it and loved it and felt I had very much honored their past."
When the Duluth Festival Opera (DFO) began production, Director Craig Fields decided to hold "blind" auditions, valuing talent over heritage. Fields noted: "My personal feeling is that the work succeeds on its own merits, whether it is performed by a Native American or not." Although the team was open to a more diverse cast, apparently not many Native Americans came out to audition.
"Pocahontas" will premiere Thursday at the Fregeau Auditorium at Marshall School, Duluth, and its press release maintains that a traditional Native American presence will be felt: "In order to better understand the Native American experience, the opera incorporates traditional Native American literature, music and dance with inspiring performances by local tribal artists." As an alternative to the opera, Jaakola will be holding "A Native American Music Showcase" on the same night, featuring what she hopes will be inspiring performances by local tribal artists.
Did the DFO miss the message of Pocahontas in its casting? Or should opera be encouraged to take poetic license with history?