Premier performance bridges cultures
"Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio" reveals deep meaning of creation story
By Marley Shebala
(Special to the Times - Leigh T. Jimmie)
The 10-minute standing ovation following "Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio" was echoed in the comments of people who witnessed its Feb. 7 premiere at Phoenix Symphony Hall.
The audience included several Navajos and Marilyn Yellowman expressed what many probably felt.
"In the end, being Navajo, I felt like we also went through a ceremony because of the words," Yellowman said. "And I guess if you're Native, you can follow that. But maybe if you're not, maybe you couldn't follow it. But I think that we all got a blessing."
Yellowman is originally from Tuba City but now lives in Phoenix and works as a registered nurse at Phoenix Indian Hospital.
Ruth Cohen, a Phoenix resident for 55 years, said the oratorio was "well done" and "all about peace."
Cohen added, "I don't know if they were trying to explain that the Navajo people are about peace or war or what. But I think the whole meaning behind it was that people are taught to fight and it shouldn't be.
"We have to all learn to all live together in peace. It's so important in this world. It came at a good time in our history because of what's been going on in the world and the political feelings today too," she said.
Arista LaRusso, who is originally from Sand Springs, Ariz., but lives in Mesa and works in Phoenix, called the oratorio a "continuation" of the lessons of life that are found in Navajo culture.
Monsters exist within everyone and in the world and the way to overcome those monsters is through living on the path of hózhó (beauty), she said.
Karen Bitsuie, who also lives and works in the Phoenix area, noted that she had never been to the Phoenix Symphony and admitted that she probably would not have attended if the performance didn't have a Navajo connection.
But she really liked the oratorio, she said.
Those with long experience in classical music praised "Enemy Slayer" for building bridges between cultures, and for its timely message.
Anna Gentry, a soprano who is married to Gregory Gentry, the Phoenix Symphony chorus master, noticed that there were an unusually high number of Native Americans in the audience.
She explained that the Navajo oratorio was very different from a traditional oratorio for several reasons, including its "very 21st Century style" of mixed-media staging, single soloist, and opening prayer.
Typically, there are quite a few soloists in an oratorio to carry thedrama, Gentry noted. Relying on a single soloist showed that the main character, Seeker, was very strong, she said.
The mood and atmosphere of "Enemy Slayer" was also very different, starting with the use of a prayer to open the performance, Gentry said.
"That was a really wonderful experience," she said. "And the Navajo language is so beautiful and flowing. It has such a silky texture to it. It was just really exciting and really unique. I've never heard anything in Navajo and more things should be because it's such a beautiful language.
"So this (Navajo oratorio) is very pivotal. There will be more you think, maybe a Navajo opera?" she asked.
The blessing was delivered by Freddie Johnson, Navajo, who works as a cultural specialist for the Phoenix Indian Center.
Scott Hendricks, the baritone who portrayed Seeker, said the oratorio's theme of spiritually rehabilitating soldiers - only recently addressed in Western society - is very important.
"I think it is very beautiful that the Navajo people have this tradition of cleansing for someone who comes back from the war," Hendricks said.
"I think this subject matter is long overdue. I think a piece like this is long overdue. And I think it's time that this country grab hold of cultures that are still here and bring them to the forefront," he said.
"When you think of American music you think of (Aaron) Copland and (Leonard) Bernstein. Their works are very well known. But where are the Native American songs? Or the Navajo or any other Native American language," Hendricks wondered.
"What Mark (Grey, the composer) has done, what Laura (Tohe, the librettist) has done, what we all have done, is really bring Native American culture to the forefront, into an important place, alongside everything else.
Hendricks believes "Enemy Slayer" has a future beyond its place at the center of the Phoenix Symphony's 60th anniversary celebration.
"As far as new works go, more often than not, they're not very good. I do a lot of new works. They're done once and put on a shelf," he said.
"But Mark's piece, the music is beautiful, the words are beautiful, and it's very accessible to the public. People will want to hear it," Hendricks said.
Grey said he spoke with some university students after the performance and they were so moved, they literally couldn't find words to describe what they had just experienced.
And he said that's the "bridge building" between the indigenous and non-indigenous world that he, Tohe and photographer Deborah O'Grady hoped "Enemy Slayer" would accomplish.
Opposite of Disney
"When you see large corporate America, like Disney, take a story and basically strip a lot of its cultural values out and then see 'Enemy Slayer,' what you'll understand that we're doing is the exact opposite," Grey emphasized. "It's inclusion.
"Like someone said, it's the extension of a prayer. It was like a long, long ceremony. It was a ceremony because it started with Freddie's prayer. It's just one of those magical moments."
Tohe said she didn't know what to expect when she arrived at Phoenix Symphony Hall that evening.
"I was just living by the moment," she smiled. "But when I got on the stage (after the finale) and I got my flowers, I realized they really liked us."
Tohe added that the people of the Phoenix Symphony were very supportive and open to ideas of creating work from indigenous people's stories.
"It's incredible," said Tohe, who is Tsé Nahabilnii (Sleep Rock Clan), born for Tódích'íi'nii (Bitter Water Clan).
But what really amazed her was watching an elderly Navajo couple spend more than $80 to buy tickets for "Enemy Slayer."
"I think it was an affirmation of our language and our stories and our beliefs," Tohe said. "We've always known that these stories were powerful and beautiful. And now we're able to give it to the world and have them appreciate it too."
If you missed the premiere of "Enemy Slayer" keep these dates in mind: It will be performed July 24 and 25 during the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder.
Information: www.coloradomusicfest.org or David Nischwitz at email@example.com or 602-495-1117, ext. 319.
Reporter's Notebook: Oratorio evokes tears of pride, recognition, hope