The vines were a bit of a problem. They couldn’t, after all, simply move 124 anachronistic acres of grapes. But that’s just one of the challenges you have to deal with when a story takes nearly 150 years to get from the moment it happened to the moment it’s captured in film.
That film is The Lake / n’-ha-a-itk, a ground-breaking operatic documentary that Heather Pawsey, the soprano and moving force behind the project, calls “a powerful, powerful piece of art.”
It was filmed at Quails’ Gate Winery, which in 1873 was the Sunnyside Ranch owned by John and Susan Allison, the first European settlers on this side of Okanagan Lake.
“The opera is about the day Susan thought she saw the spirit of the lake,” says Pawsey, who is also the founding artistic director and general manager of Astrolabe Musik Theatre. “She believes she saw what we call Ogopogo, a name that I will never use again because it is very disrespectful.” In the syilx language, its proper name, n’-ha-a-itk, means “sacred being of the water.”
In the 1950s, the avant-garde Canadian composer Barbara Pentland wrote an opera about Susan’s sighting, with the poet Dorothy Livesay writing the libretto. “It was never, ever produced,” says Pawsey. She came across the score in 1996 when she was searching for a piece of music to perform for the Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition, which she later won. “I found it, and I knew I had to produce it. It just became a mission.” But the score was incomplete, and it was only later she discovered the original libretto, stuffed in a drawer at Quails’ Gate.
The opera features only four characters and was semi-staged for the first time at Vancouver’s Chan Centre in 2012. One day, Pawsey found a syilx Elder, artist and storyteller named Delphine Derickson waiting for her backstage
“That was the start of a life-changing experience for me,” Pawsey says. “She is an absolute living cultural treasure. We decided we really wanted to work together, and we co-created an opera.” They transformed the original opera with syilx language, culture and dance to contextualize what happened when the settlers moved to this land. “And then I realized what needed to happen was we needed to create a film that documented everything.”
That film, a co-production of Astrolabe Musik Theatre and Turning Point Ensemble in collaboration with Westbank First Nation, and filmed at Quails’ Gate, is finally nearing completion. Pawsey hopes to see it shown at film festivals and broadcast on television; only recently was it shown for the first time to members of the Westbank First Nation.
“It was very emotional and it went so much better than I ever expected it to,” Pawsey says. “It’s been a very long journey.
Fundraising for The Lake / n’-ha-a-itk is still underway; donate at canadahelps.org/en/charities/astrolabe-musik-theatre-society or astrolabemusiktheatre.com/support.
@ Vitis Magazine