I’ve been singing in Sister Angelica for the past month or so, and lately I’ve been thinking about one of the opera’s themes – a mother’s love for her child and how it relates with my experiences in the Alaska Native and Native American communities.
My heritage is a mixture of Inupiaq, Irish, Scottish-Irish and English. My mother was born in Nome and raised in Seattle, and my grandmother, who was born in White Mountain, was raised in Kivalina, a tiny community in northwest Alaska. A desire to connect with this part of my heritage is what brought me to Alaska from Toronto, Canada, where I grew up. A singer for most of my life, this fall I found myself singing in the Anchorage Opera’s double-feature production of Suor Angelica/Pagliacci.
Sister Angelica, who is from a royal family, was forced to enter the convent seven years before the opera begins because she had given birth to an illegitimate child, thus staining the reputation of her family’s name. As any mother would, she yearns to hear word of her son, but in the meantime, she dutifully whiles away her time at the convent. All of the other nuns, although they might not know the truth of her deepest desire, know that she sorely misses her family. When word of a noble visitor is announced, all thoughts turn to Angelica, and all nuns, concerned for their fellow sister, disregard their own desires and unite in a wish that the visitor might be for her.
I have experienced this sort of unity of spirit. A few years ago, I was a member of an Inupiaq dance group called Iknaaniktut, which is an Inupiaq word meaning, “It has been lit”, referring to a legend about the Northern Lights. Before beginning our practice, we would hold a talking circle, a ceremony that Alaska Natives have borrowed from Lower 48 Native American cultures. In a talking circle, the designated leader announces the purpose for the gathering, and then participants take turns smudging with sage and then pray while holding a “talking stick” – a stick (or feather) that often is decorated with beads, that, when held, indicates who is speaking. No one is to interrupt the speaker until he or she is done. The stick passes around the circle until it reaches the group leader. We had our talking circle, and then would dance, finishing our gathering with a feast of nigipeak, or traditional Inupiaq foods.
On occasion, we would also do a special talking circle for Iknaaniktut members who were going on trips, as going on a journey always presents possible risks. We would pray for protection for the person traveling. One time, I was traveling to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC to work with some Alaska Native Elders. My dance group held a talking circle for me before I left. As I took off in the plane, I could feel the energy of their prayers surrounding and protecting me. Believe what you will, but I felt stronger having gone through that experience, knowing that my friends were thinking about me and had focused their thoughts on my safety.
Sister Angelica is a short, one-act opera, but like a shooting star, is heart-breakingly beautiful in its brevity. I hope you will join us, and think of what it means to pull together and support one another as you watch the drama unfold.