Dean Burry: Shanawdithit

On May 16, 2019, Shanawdithit, a new opera by Dan School professor Dr. Dean Burry and librettist Yvette Nolan premiered in Toronto.

Shanawdithit centres on the story of Shanawdithit (1801-1829), thought at the time of her death to be the last member of the Beothuk Nation in what is now called Newfoundland. In 1829, Shanawdithit was taken to St. John’s by William Cormack, where she created a series of ten drawings that speak of the life of her people, their encounters with the European settlers, and loneliness of survival. These detailed drawings form the basis of the opera.

Due to nearly all of the Beothuk’s published history being documented by Europeans and non-Indigenous historians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this collaboration sheds a new light on a story and people misrepresented by deeply flawed documentation. The story and libretto is written and curated by celebrated Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan, with a score composed by Newfoundlander Dean Burry.

Shanawdithit brings Indigenous artistic collaborators together from Nations across the country to give voice to Shanawdithit and her people, responding to the ten drawings that are the only first-person account of the life of the Beothuk. Led by Nolan, collaborators, performers, and Indigenous community members have been instrumental in the shaping of the work from the beginning of development, through a collaborative and workshop-driven creation process influenced by oral and visual histories passed down to them. The collaborators have studied each drawing and determined how to visually communicate the essence of Shanawdithit’s account, using dance, language, costume, photography, projections, sculpture and set design to effectively bring her drawings to life on the stage.

Learn more about Shanawdithit:

Photo credit Dahlia Katz