Mòshkamo: Mezzo-soprano Marion Newman connects to her roots

Mezzo Marion Newman will be singing Zasakwaa on Sept. 19.

There’s nothing the mezzo-soprano Marion Newman likes better than embarking from the Toronto Yacht Club with her partner on their Contessa 26 sailboat and spending a day or more on Lake Ontario.

Nothing, except singing a piece of music that connects her to her heritage as an Indigenous woman and to the classical music repertoire that she has made her life’s work.

Newman will get the latter experience on Sept. 19 in Southam Hall when she sings a work by Barbara Croall. The piece, Zasakwaa, is one of three works by Indigenous composers being performed by the NAC Orchestra. On the same bill is a performance of Peer Gynt with narration by Tom Jackson.

At the time of this interview, Newman had had Croall’s music for about three weeks.

“The melody that I sing is quite tonal and modal. It’s reminiscient of Indigenous music of this area of Ontario.

“It’s quite beautiful and very evocative of winter. It is centred (around an island in a lake) on Manitoulin Island. The island was seen by Indigenous people as an older woman lying on her back.”

In the lyric, the island is a being recognizing winter is coming in and will be blanketed with snow, she said. A flute sound enters and it could be a bird or the wind or a spirit.

“I suppose that is what the old woman hears as winter coming in. It makes her think that there will be a melt and that keeps her calm when everyone sleeps. There is a bit at the end when I am to sound like an Eastern Owl, which is spirit guarding those who are sleeping in the winter.

“It is a lovely sentiment giving the land a spirit and a story.” It also offers a different perspective on nature as more than something to cut down or dig up.

The words Newman sings are in Odawa, Croall’s language.

Singing an Indigenous language is meaningful for Newman, who is Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations, English, Irish and Scottish.

She has never sung Odawa before Zasakwaa.

“Barbara provided a recording of herself speaking the words, so I know what it is supposed to sound like. She also provided a text in English.

Odawa is “vowel-based and soft and the consonants are very much same as several English consonants so you don’t need to learn some of the sounds produced in some Indigenous languages,” she said. “It’s pretty straight forward.”

And it works well with music.

“It’s very rhythmic and smooth. There aren’t a lot of glottal sounds as there are in English.”

The last time Newman was on the Southam Hall stage. she was singing four songs about reconciliation written for her by Bramwell Tovey. He has been a big supporter of hers.

“It is very exciting to be singing the work of an Indigenous composer on a program where two other Indigenous composers are represented (Ian Cusson and Andrew Balfour).”

She’s also singing music from Peer Gynt “that matches what Barbara has created. They belong together.”

That kind of pairing pleases her.

“This is an interesting time. This is something I have been wishing for since I was a kid in B.C.

“I did some composing when I was young and I was looking for that blend of my worlds. I’m half settler on my mom’s side and half Kwagiulth and Stó:lo on my dad’s side. I wanted to find a place where those two halves can exist together.

As a child, she said she thought could be done easily with a light hearted feeling.

“Now I am an adult and I know it’s way more complicated. But it is possible and it is happening. It is really exciting to see Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaborators creating new works. And it is amazing that I get to perform so many of them.”

But, she said, she doesn’t want to give up on composers of old either.

Still, “the Indigenous perspective is one that we have been denied as a country as a whole. It is important and really heartening that our perspective is being heard and taken on because we can only all be richer for it.

She knows this current focus and interest could be a passing fancy.

“That is something that comes up a lot and I think that it could be. I understand why people are worried about that because that has been the case in the past.

“But our voices are growing. Our strength is growing and our ability to make ourselves heard as Indigenous people is certainly in a totally new place as far as our mixed history has gone.

“I don’t think we are going back personally.”

A generosity of spirit needs to be there, she added. but she thinks the community at large is generally supportive, “although there has been pushback from certain factions. Overall I think we (Indigenous people) have developed amazing patience and gentleness. When people learnt to trust that, we will just keep moving forward.”

Right now, she believes, people are more open and willing to ask questions and to find out answers.

“In the end all you can do is try things out. If it’s not working, apologize and try again.”

Newman is also pleased to see younger Indigenous performers following in her footsteps. In Marie Clements’ and Brian Current’s powerful Missing with City Opera Vancouver/Pacific Opera Victoria, in which she played the character of Dr. Wilson, Newman was working with other classical singers of Indigenous heritage such as her friend, soprano Melody Courage, who will also perform Sept. 19 in another work.

“It’s exciting that there are younger performers coming along. They are extremely talented and really with it.”

As for her own career, Newman believes she is just coming into her own.

“It’s a long career to be a mezzo. You have to be in your 40s, I guess, before the voice really starts to bloom. I have been told that for a long time. It wasn’t until I hit my 40s, that I realized it was true.”

Early on, she said, it was really hard to be loud enough.

“Once you are loud enough, there are roles such as trouser roles that are cut off because they are set aside for younger singers.

“You have to be comfortable with a longer run and not as busy all at once early on.” That suited her, she said, because it allowed her to have other things going on in her life, such as sailing and family and friendships.

Newman has lived in Toronto for almost 20 years but she does get home to B.C. several times a year. This fall for example she be in Victoria for three months performing Suor Angelica The Abbess in Il Trittico with Pacific Opera and then doing the tour of Missing.

As a more experienced performer, she also now finds herself mentoring younger Indigenous singers.

“It is how it happens. It is also how I have been raised. As an Indigenous person, the next generation and generations to come are very important. Making a space for them and letting them know they are welcome and letting them know they have a lot to teach you” is part of it.

It’s not a formal venture.

“The mentoring I do happens because I’m doing gigs with these amazing young singers. They have heard about me and they find out I’m someone they can talk to.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.