Cultures and history meet in The Lake/N-ha-a-itk

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It’s taken six decades for Barbara Pentland and Dorothy Livesay’s The Lake to find a home—and now that it has, no more appropriate venue could be desired. When Astrolabe Musik Theatre, the Turning Point Ensemble, and Westbank First Nation team up to present the 1952 opera’s first full staging, at West Kelowna’s Quails’ Gate Winery this weekend, it’ll be a true homecoming, for the events depicted in Livesay’s libretto took place on that very same property 140 years before.

The Lake, as Astrolabe artistic director Heather Pawsey explains in a telephone interview from her West End home, is based on the journals of Susan Allison, one of the first Europeans to settle in the B.C. Interior. The land she and her husband John claimed on the shores of Okanagan Lake is now the Quails’ Gate vineyard, whose owners maintain the original Allison home as an informal museum of pioneer life.

But The Lake—now incorporating additional material from composer Leslie Uyeda and Westbank First Nation cultural leader Delphine Derickson, and retitled The Lake/N-ha-a-itk—is more than a settlers’ story, much more. It’s an investigation of how immigrants and aboriginal people can make a life together, a vibrant reinvention of a long-lost cultural treasure, and—for Pawsey, at least—the culmination of an almost supernatural series of events.

The soprano, who’ll play the role of Susan Allison, was first drawn to the score nearly 20 years ago, while preparing to enter the 1996 Eckhardt-Gramatté vocal competition. She went on to win, finding in the process a treasure far greater than any cash prize.

“I wanted to sing an aria from a Canadian opera, and so I went down to the Canadian Music Centre and just pulled scores off shelves for days,” she explains. “When The Lake hit the desk, I opened it and I saw this handwritten score and I could hear the first aria in my head. I thought, ‘This is really unusual. This writing, it looks angular but it’s not. It’s densely layered, it’s textured, but there are beautiful motifs running through it.’

“I knew, honestly,” she continues. “I opened it, and I went, ‘This is the one.’ And then I had this secondary thought: ‘I’m going to have a really long relationship with this.’ I couldn’t have told you why, and it sounds sort of out-there, but I really did.”

Along the way, she got word that she’d advanced to the second round of the competition while standing in the Allisons’ cabin, just before she realized it was the setting of Livesay’s libretto. Later on, once production of The Lake/N-ha-a-itk was under way, she discovered that Westbank First Nation consultant Jordan Coble was the great-grandson of Johnny MacDougall, a character in the opera and the man who built Allison House.

“I can’t not subscribe to the notion of meaningful coincidence,” she says. “It’s hit me in the face more times than I could tell you. But I couldn’t have imagined that this project would ever have manifested itself in this form, as this absolutely life-changing collaboration with Westbank First Nation. I knew only about the opera, and that I had to find some way of having it done.”

Chief among those life-changing experiences has been meeting Derickson; although the two come from radically different backgrounds, their artistic kinship is one of the animating forces behind The Lake/N-ha-a-itk. Off-stage, they’ve swapped stories, songs, and vocal techniques; on-stage they’ll join forces to sing Derickson’s “Strawberry Song” and the opera’s concluding “Incantation”, Uyeda’s setting of a traditional Gaelic ballad.

“The text translates into ‘Walk with me, fellow traveller,’ ” says Pawsey, who notes that the Allisons’ story is an early example of collaboration between settlers and aboriginal people. “I hope people can feel that resonance when they’re walking on this ground. They’re walking on the actual site. These people were here. These things happened. The story is not made up.…And history is not in the past.”

Astrolabe Musik Theatre, the Turning Point Ensemble, and Westbank First Nation present The Lake/N-ha-a-itk at Quails’ Gate Winery in West Kelowna from Friday to Sunday (August 15 to 17).

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