Vancouver Opera: Can Cultures Merge? – Whenever did cultures stop merging?

Vancouver Opera: Can Cultures Merge?
– Whenever did cultures stop merging?

NOVEMBER. 8, 7:30-9:30 PM
Opera Speaks @ VPL: 
“Can Cultures Merge?”
Alice MacKay Room, Vancouver Public Library
A free public forum

Opera is an art form that has borrowed from many cultures near and
far.  There is a tradition of “East meets West,” demonstrated as Puccini's
Turandot is set in China, Bizet's The Pearl Fishers is set in Ceylon,
and Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah is set in Gaza.  And even
Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado alludes to “something Japanese” but
is really a parody of English custom and pretension.

It was only a matter of time that the Vancouver Opera should set one of
Europe's most famous operas smack dab in the middle of the Pacific
Northwest First Nations culture.

Last week, magnificently costumed opera singers performed two excerpts from Mozart's Magic Flute
opera, but they were dressed in Northwest coast First Nations
inspired designs.  The young male bird catcher character of
Papageno has now become himself a bird – a hummingbird to be
precise.  The Queen of the Night has become the mythic wild woman
of the woods – T'sonokwa.

Fantastic?  Definitely.  Absurd?  Maybe.  Cultural appropriation?  Debatable…

Chris Creighton Kelly, noted artist and cultural critic, moderated the discussion which featured panelists such as anthropologist Wade Davis, Magic Flute stage director Robert McQueen, First Nations writer and filmmaker Loretta Todd, and Marcia Crosby, professor of First Nations Studies at Malaspina University-College. 

The Vancouver Opera website states the questions:

Can artists find common ground through artistic endeavour?  When does
exploration of another culture become exploitation and appropriation?
When and how does mere ‘inclusion’ became true collaboration? This
forum will explore how creative artists and performers collaborate
across cultural lines, and what importance such collaboration may hold
for the future of humankind.

The evening began slowly as each of the panelists explored the reasons
and questions to why they were on the panel.  McQueen explained
how the Vancouver Opera set about to invite and find collaborating
First Nations artists to work with them in creating an “impossible
idea.”  By relocating the Magic Flute, which was originally set in
Egypt and full of Masonic ritual, to the Pacific Northwest – it had to
be adapted to fit First Nations culture and mythology.  First
Nations writer/filmmaker Loretta Todd and professor Marcia Crosby, felt
it was also necessary to address how culturally sensitive or
appropriate it was to adopt First Nations culture.  On the other
hand, they also pointed out that they didn't know that much about
opera, and neither admitted anthropologist Wade Davis. 

But did this matter?  If more people become interested in opera, or
become more interested in exploring First Nations culture and stories,
then this is a good thing.  Davis explained that our world is
losing cultures on an astonishing rate.  Cultural diversity is
important for us to see things and issues from different perspectives. There used to be 500 Aboriginal Nations in North America before the arrival of Europeans, many have disappeared or become assimilated.

Crosby asked the question “When did cultures stop merging, so that we
had to ask the question 'Can cultures merge?'” This raised an important
point, because I personally feel that culture is like a river.  We
don't see where it starts high in the mountains… and it never is the
same when we walk through it again (to paraphrase Plato or Heraclitus)
and it ends in the large globally shared oceans.

The evening really picked up when the audience challenged the panelists
with questions and statements.  Issues addressed were
appropriation of culture and also ethnic minority issues in a white
dominated culture.  Creighton-Kelly summed it up aptly when he
said we are just beginning to scratch the surface before he wrapped up
the evening.

I was one of the people who spoke to the panel, and I was surprised at the clapping for the recognition of the name “Gung Haggis Fat Choy” when Vancouver Opera marketing and development officer Doug Tuck introduced me to the audience as he handed me the microphone.  But then “Gung Haggis Fat Choy” is getting more well known as a blending of Scottish and Chinese traditions and cultures.

“I love what the Vancouver Opera is doing,” I stated to the audience,
and spoke of the impact that the Vancouver Opera touring production
Naomi's Road” had on sharing the Japanese Canadian internment
experience with thousands of school children.  “It is a sharing of
Japanese Canadian culture with White mainstream culture, so yes…
cultures can merge. Author Joy Kogawa told me that in Tofino, people in
the audience were crying.  Japanese Canadians were very touched to
see their culture portrayed on stage.

“The real benefit is that we are talking together in forums like
this.  We can share and listen to each other's stories, and our
cultures are merging now.  And it will continue. 

“I really want to know how the school children across BC are receiving the touring version of Magic Flute today in the schools.”

Vancouver Opera general director James Wright responded by saying that
while it is still early, the students at the schools are responding well, and are
interested in learning about First Nations culture – some are not.  I expect that
many First Nations students will take pride in seeing their culture and traditions represented.  At the same time, I expect there to be critics
of cultural mis-appropriation.  In the end… discussion is
good.  Sharing is good.  More people witnessing and
experiencing these events and issues is good. And in the end, First Nations culture is recognized as an integral part of Vancouver and BC culture and history.

Next Opera Speaks is Wednesday Night at Vancouver Public Library.
Opera Speaks @ VPL: “Power and its Abuses”
A free public forum about Verdi's “McBeth”

CBC Radio’s Mark Forsythe
as he moderates a discussion about the nature of political power and
its abuse, in both Shakespeare’s day and in our contemporary society. 
Panelists include UBC global issues expert Michael Byers, SFU criminologist Ehor Boyanowski and SFU Shakespeare scholar Paul Budra.

November 15, 2006 7:30pm
Alice Mackay Room
Vancouver Public Library, Central Branch

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