Q&A with Marion Newman: A song for the Thunderbird and Thirteen Strings

For the Indigenous peoples of North America the thunderbird is part of their cultural story. For Marion Newman, a British Columbia born mezzo-soprano with Kwagiulth and Stó:lō roots, the Thunderbird is a piece of music that she performs. This week in a concert of “stormy” music with Thirteen Strings, she’ll be singing the piece. She talks about the music and her perspective on classical music, Canada 150 and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in this email interview with ARTSFILE’s Peter Robb.

Q. What a great project. Where did the idea for Thunderbird come from?

A. Kevin (Mallon of Thirteen Strings) and I have worked on many concerts and recordings together, as well as Carmen and Barber of Seville. During our many chats about who we are and what we love about music I related my wish (for) more repertoire that represented my First Nations Kwagiulth and Stó:lō culture; music I could delve into using my classical training. In 2010 we commissioned and performed Thunderbird from composer and friend Dustin Peters. Dustin and I found texts about Thunderbird in Kwakwala, the language of the Kwa’kwa’ka’wakw people which inspired him to write this terrific work for baroque orchestra and mezzo soprano. As Dustin’s piece deserves to be heard again, Kevin invited me to perform it with Thirteen Strings. Thunderbird legends occur across many North American Indigenous cultures and storms have been inspiring storytellers and composers, from all parts of the planet, since time began. This is how we decided on a theme of Thunderbird and Storms.

Marion Newman will join Thirteen Strings for a performance of the work Thunderbird.

Q. Can you describe it for me?

A. Dustin’s work is influenced by his wonderful obsession with opera and the voice and how beautifully the voice can project emotion. He also writes film scores and these two interests make for a composition style that really tells a story. This piece opens with Thunderbird raging, creating lightening and rain and thunder. Next comes the achingly beautiful middle section in which we find out that Thunderbird’s heart is broken. Following this emotional appeal Thunderbird rages again for an exciting finish to the piece. The other music on the programme includes The Tempest by Purcell and works of two other Canadian composers; Tobin Stokes and me. Tobin’s beautiful and evocative Klee Wyck is based on Emily Carr’s writings about her travels to remote seaside parts of the West Coast. Two movements of this larger work will be performed. I wrote Kinanu, a lullaby, for my sister. Drawing on my background, I created a piece in which you will hear a Celtic style violin solo over a drumbeat/heartbeat woven in with the melody which was influenced by the Kwagiulth potlatch songs I learned as a child. All of these pieces could be called “accessible” and the similarities in expression by composers and writers, across eras, about the topic of extreme weather and environment will be evident.

Q. How did you start your musical life?

A. Apparently from the moment I could toddle I sang along with my dad’s radio in his carving studio. He liked to listen to country music… mum recognized that I had musical talent and decided to steer that interest by signing me up for formal music lessons.

Q. Tell me about your parents?

A. I come from the most supportive and inspiring parents one can imagine. Mum was a school teacher, principal and library clerk during her working years. She has always been a wonderful artist, choosing textiles as her medium. I will likely wear one of the outfits she designed for me for this concert. Dad has kept up the legacy of his artistic ancestors as a Master Carver and Hereditary Chief. They home-schooled my two incredible siblings and me for several reasons. They wanted to make sure we all grew up understanding that learning never stops and we can always follow our talents and passions. Perhaps even more importantly, they hoped to shield us from the racist beliefs and legacy, that First Nations children are inferior, left by the residential school system my dad went through. My parents wanted us to grow up proud of our heritage and strong enough to withstand the everyday reminders that Canada still has much work to do in recognizing the value Indigenous people offer to this country. My family and I remain extremely close and supportive of each other in all our endeavours.

Q. What community/city are you from?

A. On my father’s side I am Kwagiulth: Kwa’kwa’ka’wakw from the Kukwakam, Gixsam and Wa’welibayi clans of Fort Rupert and Salish: Stó:lō from Cheam in the upper Fraser Valley. On my mother’s side I am English, Irish and Scottish. I was born in Bella Coola, B.C. and when I was one, mum and dad and I moved back to Sooke, B.C., where they still reside today, right by the sea.

Q. When did you realize you might want to be a singer?

A. I began taking Suzuki piano lessons when I was five, at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and I took my lessons very seriously. Immediately I was hooked by the communication that music offered. Even now I feel unable to fully express the depth and scope of my feelings through language alone. I continued my studies through a bachelor degree in piano performance. I sang in children’s choirs but always thought I’d be a concert pianist until college when I took voice lessons as a second instrument. It was great fun and I discovered I had a voice. I also realized how much more I could express through words and characters and I loved the social aspect of always working with an ensemble. I finished my formal studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, with a Master’s in vocal performance. Since then I’ve been fortunate to have many mentors to lead me into and through this career.

Q. Is there a teacher who particularly encouraged you?

A. Dr. Robin Wood for piano and Selena James for voice. If I began to name the conductors, directors, singing colleagues and composers who have become great friends as well as my champions, we’d be here all day. I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to have been encouraged by such talented and amazing people to keep sailing on in this amazing and often unpredictable career.

Q. Why classical music?

A. For me, classical music offers a vast array of styles and insists upon a level of excellence that no other type of music does. From early music to new works, I can’t think of a single story that cannot be expressed through classical music. I love having such variety available to me as a performer.

Q. As an Indigenous performer of the classics, you are singing mostly Western European music. Are you comfortable doing that?

A. I spent many years training in Western European music and I feel my instrument is well suited to oratorio, song and opera. I am Indigenous but I am also English, Irish and Scottish and so I am equally drawn to perform Western European music as I am to Indigenous music. I have been raised to embody all kinds of customs from both sides of my family and they are very integrated within me. More and more I have been afforded opportunities to combine my musical backgrounds, this concert being one of those.

Q. Do other musical forms appeal to you?

A. I love to listen to  pop, early jazz and various styles of world music, and sometimes (with cocktails involved) I sit at the piano and perform “operatic” ’80s and ’90s rock ballads, usually to peals of laughter from my family and close friends. Although truth be told, the world is better off with me not singing any non-classical styles outside of showers and closed living rooms.

Q. Reconciliation between Indigenous Canadians and the rest of the society is being talked about. Is Thunderbird an example of that?

A. I feel that any collaboration that creates conversations that may bring about more awareness and better understanding of Indigenous issues is an example of reconciliation. Learning about injustices that continue today and the lasting effects residential schools have on survivors and their children is important. Understanding the damage that the loss of cultural customs have had on First Nations, Inuit and Métis is vital. Awareness will help us all to figure out our place in the work that needs to continue to bring us to a time where we can remember the past openly and also move forward.

Q. Is the idea of reconciliation something you think about?

A. Every single day. With my diverse background I feel I am the very embodiment of reconciliation. Long before the idea made it into the mainstream, my family was negotiating reconciliation within ourselves and our family unit. As a child I was aware of and proud of all aspects of my family lines. It didn’t occur to me that people would mostly only ever identify me as Indigenous, ignoring the fact that I am just as English, Irish and Scottish as I am Kwagiulth and Stó:lō. As the awareness of that fact sank in I came to question colonialism and its damaging effects. In order to continue loving being me it is always necessary to see issues from all sides and to make careful and thoughtful decisions and where I land on a variety of issues. While it isn’t always easy, I feel very privileged to have this point of view in my life.

Q. Many Indigenous Canadians are not celebrating Canada 150. Where do you stand on that?

A. Oy… this is complicated… One side of me is glad that my mother’s ancestors came to Canada so that I could eventually be born as me. And the other side feels the vibrations of deep wounds inflicted by colonialism. I absolutely understand why many are opting out of celebrating and I support this stance. I also fear that if we were all to fade into the background and ignore the celebration entirely, we would be fulfilling the wish that many colonialists have had that we would all disappear so they can get on with being dominant. I can’t exactly say I am celebrating 150, but I will stand and sing and remind everyone that this country was filled with rich and beautiful cultures long before 150 years ago and that we are still here today. We should also be celebrating that.

For more information about this concert on May 12 and for tickets, please see thirteenstrings.ca.


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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.