Opera Theater Oregon is creating an 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 said she first learned about Sacajawea when she was 6 years old, and hasn’t stopped exploring Sacajawea’s history since.
“My journey was preserving her history and sharing her history,” said Abrahamson. “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.”
Abrahamson worked with Justin Ralls, the artistic director of Opera Theater Oregon, to create the libretto and match the story to the music, written by Ralls and Hovia Edwards, an Indigenous flute player.
Abrahamson, who lives in Idaho, was in Portland earlier this month for the performance of a scene from the opera. The performance featured Hovia Edwards playing flute, and First Nations mezzo soprano Marion Newman playing Sacajawea.
“It was the most emotional moment for me, because it has never been done. Never. And to hear that was powerful,” Abrahamson said.
“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, …” Abrahamson said. “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.”
In addition to Agai-Dika, the opera is written in English, French, Shoshone and traditional sign language.
The performance features replicas of traditional costumes and customs specific to Sacajawea’s tribe.
“It’s her story,” Abrahamson said. “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.”
Opera Theater Oregon is searching for partners to finish the work, said Lisa Lipton, the group’s executive director. “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 U.S.,” she said.
Abrahamson sees this opera as a way to reach new audiences with her ancestor’s story.
“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,” she said. “Now with opera, you can tell the world.”