Indigenous creators hope to share history, cultural art forms through first-ever Tlingit opera

The first Tlingit opera is in production. It’s about the Tlingit-Russian wars in Southeast Alaska at the start of the 19th century, and while it’s still in the early development stage, its creators say it’s bound to be an epic production.

A man in a decorated blanket and a raven's head mask klooks over his shouldder
The first-ever Tlingit opera will be based on the book “Russians in Tlingit America” by Nora Marks and Richard Dauenhauer. (Sealaska Heritage Institute.)

Sealaska Heritage Institute recently announced the opera’s development, which will be based on the true story of the Tlingit-Russian wars in 1802 and 1804.

Ed Littlefield, the opera’s composer, said one word has often been used to describe the story so far.

“We have been throwing out the word ‘epic,’ you know, in a lot of our conversations and that story, that real-life story that happens, you know, in Lingít Aaní, in our backyard,” Littlefield said. “You know, it is a very important one. And either way it could have gone would affect the area for years to come.”

The story of those battles have been told by generations of Tlingit. But even while the source material is written, it’s too soon to say exactly what the opera will be like in detail. The creators hope to show audiences Tlingit song, dance and art in its many forms.

“It’s already built-in up and down, you know, there’s triumphs, there’s sacrifice, there’s explosions. Literally, there’s explosions,” Littlefield said.

The idea for the opera started with Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute. Several years ago, she was doing research on the Tlingit-Russian Wars.

“And in my mind, I could actually just see the scenes, you know,” Worl said.

Worl imagined vivid details of a battle on the beach: The beating of the drums, Tlingit women wailing war cries, even the foggy weather.

“I was thinking this would be awesome to see visually,” she said. “And also, I wanted to hear the sounds that were ongoing with the scene.”

Worl asked Vera Starbard to write the opera. Starbard said she hopes audiences can learn about the sophistication of different Tlingit art forms.

“There’s this dominant narrative in American culture that said Indigenous anything is less than, is more simplistic, is savage,” Starbard said. “I mean, we’ve literally grown up with that narrative, as a country. And yet, we’ve been doing performing arts pieces for thousands of years and have really emphasized what we might call production value.”

Starbard said she hopes audiences will learn lessons from the history itself.

“What it says about how coordination, and working together as many different autonomous groups, made a successful campaign against what could be seen as a much more powerful force, in just sheer numbers and literal gunpowder.”

The opera will be a collaboration between Sealaska Heritage Institute and Perseverance Theatre.

Leslie Ishii is the artistic director at Perseverance Theatre, and said the opera’s development is a years-long process.

“It’s an interesting way to produce, and a great opportunity to decolonize our spaces, continue to re-indigenize and in this case, re-Tlingitize, our spaces as well.”

The first-ever Tlingit opera doesn’t have a set release date yet. But Littlefield said as the opera evolves, he hopes the story is shared around the state and hopefully, the world.

Editor’s note: Vera Starbard is on the Board of Directors for KTOO.