Think Out Loud

New Oregon opera tells Sacajawea’s story

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
May 11, 2023 8:48 p.m. Updated: May 19, 2023 7:58 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, May 12

This week, Opera Theater of Oregon is performing a scene from a brand new opera they’ve been working on about the life of Sacajawea, the Native American woman known for her role with the historic Lewis & Clark Expedition. The opera, called “Nu Nah-Hup: Sacajawea’s Story,” has a libretto written by the great-great-grandniece of Sacajawea, Rose Ann Abrahamson. It also features music by OTO Artistic Director Justin Ralls and Native American flutist and composer Hovia Edwards. It will be sung in Agai-Dika/Lemhi-Shoshone, Québécois French and English. We talk to Rose Ann Abrahamson and Lisa Lipton, executive director of Opera Theater of Oregon.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: Opera Theater Oregon is performing a world premiere this weekend. It’s a scene from a brand-new opera about the life of Sacajawea, the Native American woman best known for her role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It’s called “Nu Nah-Hup: Sacajawea’s Story” and it’s being sung partly in Sacajawea’s Agai-Dika/Lemhi-Shoshone language. The libretto was written by the great-great-grandniece of Sacajawea, Rose Ann Abrahamson. She joins us now along with Lisa Lipton, who is the executive director of Opera Theater Oregon. Welcome to you both.

Rose Ann Abrahamson: Thank you.

Lisa Lipton: Thank you, Dave.

Miller: Rose Ann, what was the first kernel, the first seed of this opera for you?

Abrahamson: I think it was that six-year old girl who was told that she was related to her. And from that time forward, everything just rolled. My journey was preserving her history and sharing her history. I rolled through the years of bringing back her people to the homeland. I did a memorial powwow for her and it just kept rolling and we even established a Sacajawea Interpretive Center in our homeland and it just kept rolling.

During the bicentennial, it was an exciting time. I was here and there across this country and there was fascination and interest in her. And I wanted to reach all audiences, all levels of our society. I knew that opera was a music form that attracted a different sort of audience, a different level of people. I wanted them to hear the beauty of her story as well, to reach out to them. And I’ve listened to opera throughout my life and I’ve heard some sung in languages and I said, why not tell her story sung in our language?

And I’m a preservationist. I like to revitalize if needs be, but I like to preserve. And in our tradition, we preserve it for the seventh generation. This is for the seventh generation when we are long gone. This is how we preserved history. And so music plays to the soul, the flute plays to the soul for native people. Opera plays to the emotions, plays to the spiritual aspect of a person. And I wanted people to hear her story from that context because it was a very emotional story.

Miller: What languages did you use for this opera? There’s a lot.

Abrahamson: Yes, we used French, we used English and we used Shoshone, the Agai-Dika dialect, specifically her language which I’m going to call an almost dying language. And the most exciting part is also preserving the traditional sign language and the sign language is also a dying language.

Miller: We’re not talking about ASL.

Abrahamson: No, no, this is a Native American sign language. And there’s only a small handful of people in North America that know the traditional sign language that was used by our ancestors. And this particular person, their family preserves that.

Miller: Lisa, how did Opera Theater Oregon get involved?

Lipton: So, during the pandemic, it was a big time of just hitting the pause button. We were thinking a lot and we’re thinking about the Opera Theater Oregon and what’s going on here and all these different aspects of the pandemic. And we’ve been discussing like, oh, what should go next? And Justin Ralls, composer and artistic director, was like, I’ve always been fascinated in this story. We started talking to our friend Catherine and our friend Drew and come to find out that there’s a connection and that somebody directly knows Rose Ann. And so then we got connected with Rose Ann, and Justin and Rose Ann startedItalking and I think it was sort of an organic fit..

As Rose Ann is saying, it’s really emotional when you hear opera. It’s really powerful. It’s not just seeing a play or hearing some music. It’s kind of an all encompassing art form. When you witness it, it’s hard to do anything else but be drawn into the story. So I think that power of that art form with this story, it just sort of, I don’t know, it kind of took off running. So Justin started working and developing this with Rose Ann basically for the past two years and working a lot with not just operatic components or working through the music especially. We’re also working with Hovia Edwards, who you’ll hear at the show. She’s got a huge role in the production because it does feature a lot of Native American flute. But it’s also so much about the language. We don’t have that yet.

Miller: Let’s hear some of that right now. First Nations mezzo soprano Marion Newman is in this production. I was lucky enough to go to a rehearsal last night. This is a part of Marion Newman singing one of her arias. Oh, Rose Ann, you want to say something first?

Abrahamson: I guess I wanted to say this really strongly. We wanted a Native American woman to perform this and she is only one of a handful of Native people in opera.

Miller: Let’s have a listen.

[Music Plays]

Miller: Rose Ann, do you remember the first time that you saw and heard Marion Newman singing the words that you’d written?

Abrahamson: It was the most emotional moment for me because it has never been done. Never. And to hear that was powerful. And I brought my daughters here with me and they’ve been walking this journey with me and to hear her sing in our language and to sing in that emotional music form made us cry. It was powerful. I just would love people to experience it. It is powerful.

Miller: How is the story that you wanted to tell in this opera different from the one that has been told by dominant white culture for 200 years?

Abrahamson: It’s her story. It is her story. And I’m going to give you a little insight. I worked for HBO and they were planning to do episodes on Lewis and Clark, and I was a consultant and I was a language consultant as well. Their story basically turned to Lewis and Clark, the experiences of Lewis and Clark, because they couldn’t tell her story. They couldn’t tell why she did what she did or why she thought the way that she did. And we were able to provide that because we knew. We saw. It’s just an understanding that you have as Native people.

Like for her birth when Lewis gave her the rattles, it’s rattlesnake rattles for her to give birth. He said I could not believe how quickly she gave birth. Well, the rattlesnake we’re not allowed to touch. It takes away our life bars, and she died at 24. And there’s just these little aspects that we know and we’re able to tell that story from a different perspective and share it from her perspective and her people’s perspective. Like, for example, the clothing that we made, the costumes that we made are replicas of our culture. Everything that’s there is authentic, but yet made it as a replica. And so every aspect that we’ve done it with care, we’ve done everything. And like, for example, when the paint was put on, I remember Lewis took the paint for those of you Lewis and Clark enthusiasts. That’s what saved him from being killed. And for our people, if you put paint on another person, you’re blessing them and that’s what saved them. And so there’s just so many parts of the story, their story and our stories interpreting what was taking place is different, far different and sometimes humorous.

Miller: Rose Ann, what’s the specific history behind the scene that people can see this weekend? The relationship between a French Canadian man named Toussaint Charbonneau and Sacajawea?

Abrahamson: He was pretty much the Hidatsa or the Minitari would capture women and they were brought in for trade, for goods…

Miller: As property?

Abrahamson: As property. They were captured, they were traded and they were given. And Charbonneau was willing to live among the Hidatsa and he was willing to work with them.

Miller: We would call this human trafficking now. We do call this human trafficking now or sex trafficking.

Abrahamson: Yes. Yes. Sa’s short life. She experienced everything that a woman would experience both pro and con and it’s just amazing, but that’s a role there. And this particular story is an aspect of where when people ask me questions at lectures, they’ll ask me, why did Sacajawea go with the expedition? Why did she not go with her people? Come to our opera and find out what happened, why she went with the expedition and did not stay with her people.

Miller: Let’s have a listen to part of the scene where Toussaint Charbonneau is talking in abusive ways to Sacajawea. Charbonneau in this scene is played by Richard Zeller. We’re also going to hear Marion Newman, again. Let’s have a listen.

[Music plays]

Miller: Lisa, I mentioned a couple times that audiences are going to be able to see a portion of the opera tomorrow and Sunday. How common is that?


There’s a new work being created and you’re giving audiences a taste of it. Is this the way new operas are normally done?

Lipton: I would say not really. We’re kind of doing something pretty unusual. It’s just that this project and this scene is so important, and the music is so interesting and all the aspects of it coming together. It’s just so special that we wanted to bring it to life. Typically things are kind of workshopped or commissioned, and it takes a very long time and it goes through many different phases. When we say workshopped, we might have a bunch of people with scripts reading in a room, and then might go through and stop and be like, oh, let’s try it this way and kind of change things as you’re going along or having large stretches of music and then sort of analyzing it with a bunch of different people or you might even stage a scene, but you wouldn’t necessarily do it with costumes and with orchestra. That is rare and special.

Miller: A fully realized portion for the public to see?

Lipton: Yes.

Miller: In addition to all of the important history and cultural preservation that we’re talking about here, what are the opera company’s hopes for the next steps here? What is supposed to happen next?

Lipton: Ooh. What’s supposed to happen next? I love that. What’s supposed to happen next is that we’re going to take this to full commission and I think that that will happen next.

Miller: What does it mean to take something to full commission?

Lipton: So right now, we are an opera company doing a very large project by ourselves. But typically with something this big and this important spans history,

many states, it’s a huge story. It’s not just important for Oregon, but it’s important for the entire US. Maybe one or two or maybe three or four opera companies would get together and go, ‘yeah, we want to support this.’ We want to help with this commission and then what will happen is it will be composed more. We’ll have more scenes, we’ll fill out and finish the rest with the storyline that’s already in place and then we’d premiere it at those places specifically.

Miller: And the cost would also be shared by those different organizations which seems like it’s a part of it?

Lipton: Yeah, I don’t know if the general public knows how truly expensive opera is because it’s theater. It’s with new things. You’re making a new work. We’re working with a lot of different people. There’s costumes, there’s sets, there’s full orchestra. One art form on its own to produce a new work is pretty expensive, especially. We’ve got a lot of different rising costs and inflation right now. It’s a constant topic, but to have a huge production like this, yeah, the cost associated is pretty high.

Miller: Rose Ann, you want to jump in.

Abrahamson: I want to jump in because this is the first time HBO couldn’t do it. It fell apart. There’s been documentaries, there’s been little bits and pieces, attempts, but we’re gonna go full bore with this. We want to go full bore, and we’re gonna start here and the seed is gonna grow. Grow here in Portland. Portland is where it’s gonna happen from here,

Miller: Rose Ann, what was your collaboration like with the composer Justin Ralls, the artistic director of the company. I’ve seen some pictures on the website of the two of you from two years ago going on trips together.

Abrahamson: Oh, he is the most wonderful human being. So open, willing to learn. He’s even speaking our language. So it’s just really open work listening to each other. Why would this direction be important? And then I’d listen to his,

why would this direction be important?

Miller: So It goes both ways?

Abrahamson: Oh Yes. Oh Yes. Very much so because he is appealing to the greater audience of non-Native people. I’m there to make sure our history is represented and Indigenous people are represented in a good way. So the way I see it, over 200 years later, Lewis and Clark, when they came through it was a connection between cultures wanting to learn about each other, bridging cultures. Well, we’re doing it again and we’re doing it with this opera.

Miller: I want to listen to a little bit more that we recorded yesterday at the rehearsal. You mentioned the flutist and composer and cultural leader, Hovia Edwards, who has a really significant part in this. There’s a pit orchestra and then she’s set aside. She was next to Justin Ralls who is conducting his score and she’s sort of a near constant soloist. Let’s have a listen to a little bit of her playing.

[Music playing]

Miller: What did Hovia bring to this collaboration?

Abrahamson: Hovia is a very talented musician. She sings our traditional songs. So I felt like – where I’m not a singer – she would be able to take a song that I hear or among our songs and she’s able to translate it to Justin so that it’s more musical. And she’s actually a musician who was contracted with Canyon Records, which is a big Native American record. She’s been on the Native American Music Awards. She is a recognized artist.

Miller: Lisa, you’re the artistic director, which is the of the reasons we wanted to have you on. Sorry, executive director. But you also played bass clarinet in the pit orchestra for the show. One of the flutists in the orchestra does PR for you. Is it fair to say that Opera Theater Oregon is a scrappy organization?

Lipton: Oh, I don’t know if I like the term scrappy. I would say we’re a little bit more glittery and cool.

Miller: I mean, when I say scrappy, I mean, that is the best.

Lipton: Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s one of the attractive qualities to me, of a smaller organization for sure. That scrappiness is interesting in that you get to do so many things. Actually, I’ve normally always played in our productions and it’s something that I love to do because it’s so rare to get to be an arts admin and also get to still play. But it’s something that I’ve always said makes me a better leader because I’m so much more connected to the performance and what’s going on. And it’s totally unusual. This last production, actually, I wasn’t going to play, but the score needed a little bit of bass clarinet. So…

Miller: It just needed it.

Lipton: I mean, it wasn’t my call but I’m glad it happened.

Miller:  Rose Ann, you started by saying that this project, the seeds of it, go back to when you were six-years old. You’re talking about a lifetime leading up to this and you have brought Sacajawea’s life alive in a lot of different venues and a lot of different forms over the years. So what does this latest version mean to now be doing an opera version?

Abrahamson: Because of how I see it, I was able to speak in the Indian camp. I remember walking up to the two little old ladies who were the meanest women in our Indian camp.

Miller: What made them mean?

Abrahamson: They were just crabby. They were just crabby little ladies.

Miller: This is when you were a kid.

Abrahamson: This is when I was a child. And they said, why are you talking about her? She made the white man take our land and at that point because they’re two little mean old ladies – I don’t know if they weren’t satisfied with their lives – I said, I’m going to show you how wonderful she is. And so from that little point, I was able to tell her story in Idaho, the Northwest, Western Idaho. I meant Western US, Eastern US and a little bit of Canada. Now with opera, you can tell the world.

Miller: Rose Ann Abrahamson and Lisa Lipton. Thanks so much.

Lipston: Thank you, Dave.

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