From book to opera: B.C. artist’s call to action
Times Colonist, Mike Devlin, Mar. 12, 2020
By the time Flight of the Hummingbird finishes its tour of B.C. in May, the chamber opera is expected to have played to more than 40,000 people in theatres, schools and community centres across the province. That’s quite an audience for relative newcomer Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, a celebrated visual artist and author whose operatic adaptation of his 2008 book for young audiences is set for eight performances at the Baumann Centre beginning Tuesday.
The co-production between Pacific Opera Victoria and Vancouver Opera gave Yahgulanaas, who admits to having very little theatre, opera or music experience, a blank canvas on which to re-write his story — and he did so with the wide-open approach of a librettist taking his first steps in the opera world. “I’m not a well-educated person — no degrees here,” he said with a laugh. “I never did finish my first year of art school, and there’s some question as to whether or not I even properly graduated from Grade 12. So I walked into it pretty naively. I was poorly informed about the genre. This allowed me a vast horizon of possibilities because I didn’t know what the reference rules or regulations were.” Yahgulanaas is incredibly well-respected in the art world, thanks to his Haida-manga illustrations, which have been shown in galleries worldwide. The book version of Flight of the Hummingbird — which fuses traditional First Nations art and Japanese animé — is based on an Indigenous parable with roots in both South America and Haida Gwaii, where Yahgulanaas was born and raised. He adapted with Barry Gilson the story of a hummingbird fighting a fire one drop of water at a time so that it would be suitable for students through Grade 9, and includes for school performances a study guide written with help from an advisory council of Indigenous artists and educators.
The production, directed by Glynis Leyshon, premièred last year in Vancouver, and is currently enjoying a run that includes performances in more than 100 B.C. schools. Companies in Saskatchewan are showing interest, according to Yahgulanaas, along with outfits in Australia and Germany. The international appeal of Flight of the Hummingbird can be traced back to Japan, where the book was first published. It became an Amazon bestseller in 2008, and has since been translated into French and Spanish, among other languages. For such a small book — 64 pages in all — the tale about a hummingbird and its friends attempting to save the environment has made a big impact. “It’s a story for the time, a call to action,” Yahgulanaas said. “What we have in the story is a hummingbird moving into action, but we actually never know [how it ends]. It’s of secondary importance. The primary importance is this state of engagement.”
Jan van der Hooft (Bear), Evan Korbut (Owl), Sara Adèle Schabas (Dukdukdiya/Hummingbird) and Simran Claire (Bunny) star in the opera, which was designed to appeal not just to younger audiences. Montreal-based Maxime Goulet wrote the music to include a mixture of blues and jazz, so it would have a more contemporary feel. “This is not opera from the 18th century,” Yahgulanaas said. “That’s probably why people are responding to it in the way they are. It feels of the moment.”
While his opera career advances, Yahgulanaas’ art career continues to speed along. His murals have been shown in New York, Denver and Boston, while one he recently created for the Seattle Art Museum will be unveiled on May 9. Though his work is finding a wide audience, he has retained his maverick streak. He delights in contesting the way in which most patrons expect to view their art: An upcoming show in Vancouver, which will feature his costume-design and set-design sketches for Flight of the Hummingbird on a mural, will ask those in attendance to destroy the mural, in hopes of creating something new. He has pulled a similar move at book readings in the past, and loves what comes of the experience. “It’s about designing artwork that welcomes them to participate, either by cutting up the books and having them make their own mural or even just looking at opera and seeing that as a call for engagement. When you step forward, as the artist, and say: ‘Here, participate,’ it gives them permission to engage. That’s why the opera is working so well.”