DOXA Fest: The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ's operatic backdrop shows how humility and reconciliation go hand in hand
Starring Delphine Derickson, Heather Pawsey, and Jordan Coble. Directed by John Bolton. A Telus Original.
For some, reconciliation with First Nations revolves around learning.
If you just get the history right—and wrap your mind around how land was stolen and why Indigenous children were kidnapped and taken to church-run schools—you're starting along a path to a more just future.
For others, reconciliation goes much deeper. It's a matter of the heart.
This road entails forging relationships, understanding and appreciating another nation's history, language, and traditions. This can only be done through curiosity, compassion, empathy, and humility.
It means leaving the cocoon of your own culture and venturing into others' world, knowing that there may be mistakes along the way that can lead to uncomfortable conversations.
This latter route is the foundation of director John Bolton's remarkable film, The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ, which had its B.C. premiere on May 6 at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival. (The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ is available online through the DOXA website until May 15.)
Ostensibly, it's a documentary about how Barbara Pentland and Dorothy Livesay's 1952 opera, The Lake, was staged for the first time—incorporating syilxʷ/Okanagan perspectives—at the Quails' Gate Winery in 2014.
This 2014 version included input from syilxʷ/Okanagan traditional knowledge keeper Delphine Derickson and heritage researcher Jordan Coble in telling the story of two of the earliest 19th-century European settlers to the region, Susan and John Allison.
Susan Allison's role is performed by soprano Heather Pawsey. She points out early in the film how open-minded her character was in real life.
Allison grew up in Sri Lanka, then known as the British colony of Ceylon, and she had a keen interest in different types of spirituality.
"She practised meditation and yoga," Pawsey, a coproducer, says in the film. "She was a fascinating character."
Her optimistic husband John, performed by opera singer Angus Bell, has a more traditional outlook and can't understand why his wife is so interested in Indigenous traditions.
The two other characters in the opera are a Métis man named Johnny MacDougall and a syilxʷ woman named Marie, who each assist the new settlers to the Okanagan. They are performed by opera singers Kwangmin Brian Lee and Barbara Towell, respectively.
MacDougall's exchanges with Allison help her appreciate the existence of a serpentine creature in nearby Okanagan Lake, known as Ogopogo to settlers and tourists over the following decades.
But on a much deeper level, The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ, is a film that explores cultural appropriation and how, even with the best of intentions, we can make mistakes in pursuing reconciliation.
For instance, in the traditions of the syilxʷ people, the lake actually houses a sacred spirit, not a monster, according to Coble. "It's more than a creature," he explains in the film. "It's in us."
But this belief was sideswiped in history by the Métis man who cozied up to the settlers in the 19th century.
Moreover, unlike as things were portrayed in a 2012 semistage premiere, this spirit of the lake was not fed pigs and other creatures.
As Derickson's daughter, Corinne, points out in the film, parts of the original libretto were "very colonized".
At one point, Pawsey offers a frank assessment over whether she would even do the opera again in the same way, given that two Indigenous characters were performed by non-Indigenous opera singers.
Following input from the syilxʷ knowledge keepers, composer Leslie Uyeda created an instrumental piece in which Corinne performs a dance to the spirit of the lake. This beautiful moment takes place as her mother and Pawsey's character look on.
Delphine Derickson also performs her traditional music with Pawsey, melding the Indigenous with the operatic in front of the gorgeous lake.
Derickson's wisdom and willingness to engage, along with Pawsey's open-minded curiosity and compassion, lead them to forge a deep bond. And this is what really makes The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ such a heartfelt and memorable film.
It's truly what reconciliation should look like—for opera lovers, particularly, but also for anyone else with an interest in digging deeper into Indigenous traditions.