SFOpera - Bay Area Spotlight: Librettist Aja Couchois Duncan on Writing One of 2020’s Biggest Hits

Bay Area Spotlight: Librettist Aja Couchois Duncan on Writing One of 2020’s Biggest Hits

It proved to be one of the biggest opera successes of 2020. The New York Times labeled it “a parable for our time.” The Los Angeles Times dubbed it “the best ticket in opera right now.” And The New Yorker called it a “gut punch.”

Sweet Land—which premiered last year on February 29—marked a powerful new entry in a line of experimental operas from the Los Angeles-based company The Industry.

It served as an indictment against the insidious nature of colonialism, taking direct aim at the myths underpinning the American dream. The name Sweet Land itself was a riff on the song “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” whose lyrics wax poetic about America as a “sweet land of liberty.”

But the opera poses the question: Liberty for whom? And at whose expense? One of the key artists behind Sweet Land was a writer based right here in the Bay Area, poet and educator Aja Couchois Duncan. As the one-year anniversary of Sweet Land approached, she spoke to San Francisco Opera by telephone about the behind-the-scenes processes that led to one of 2020’s greatest operatic hits.

It’s another early morning in the Duncan household. It’s not even 7:30am, but Duncan, 50, laughs that she slept in today: Normally, she would wake up at 5:30 to write for an hour and a half, before moving on to her busy schedule of meetings and consultant work.

Duncan works in social justice spaces, she says, whenever she’s not writing. It’s a job-juggling hustle familiar to many artists in the high-rent world of the San Francisco Bay.

“I tried to do the writer-teacher-adjunct, poet-in-the-school scenario,” she explains. But the low compensation had forced her to move into leadership development and human resources.

“It just looked like I was going to be really poor and I didn't want to be, because I had seen enough of what that does to people, women in particular,” Duncan says. “There's something about intergenerational poverty that has echoes and repercussions.”

Some day, Duncan hopes to drop all the other jobs and just focus on her award-winning writing. Her 2016 debut collection of poetry, Restless Continent, won gold at the 86th annual California Book Awards. It was an honor that put her in the path of another California poet: Douglas Kearney. And he would help lead the way to her opera debut.

Kearney had won silver to Duncan’s gold. And in the year that followed, he would be approached to work on a new opera—originally conceived as an answer to the myth of the first Thanksgiving, with its sanitized depictions of relations between settlers and Indigenous nations.

This new opera required two librettists writing in tandem with two composers. Duncan says Kearney helped put forth her name as a potential second librettist.

“Douglas had let me know that he was connecting me with someone, but I wasn't familiar with The Industry,” Duncan says. She was at her home in Woodacre, California, when she got the call to collaborate on writing Sweet Land.

Her initial reaction was one of hesitation. “I was really taken aback about the idea of the first Thanksgiving,” she says. Duncan is of mixed Ojibwe, French, and Scottish ancestry. “The sentiment seemed to be: If we could like tell it differently, things would be different.”

She also feared the prospect of representing Indigenous identity as a whole—a tall order for a single person from a single nation. But soon Duncan connected with other Indigenous artists on the project, including Diné composer Raven Chacon and director and costume designer Cannupa Hanska Luger.

“It was an invitation to do something on a level of collaboration that I hadn't had an opportunity to do,” Duncan recalls. The creative team would also include names like Du Yun—a Pulitzer-winning composer—and MacArthur Fellow Yuval Sharon. “It was a class of folks that I don't roll with on the regular.”

Duncan laughs about that now, but at the time, that was a point of anxiety. Duncan is open about her experiences as a high-school dropout. And even though she holds degrees from prestigious institutions like Berkeley and Stanford, a sense of insecurity still lingers.

When she was approached for Sweet Land, she had never written an opera before. Her mind raced with thoughts like: “I don’t know what the f*** I’m doing. Who do I think I am?”

Duncan had grown up in Orange County, California, with her father, his wife, and two step-siblings. But her teenage years had been turbulent. Duncan says she watched as her stepmother endured rounds of brain surgery, in an attempt to forestall a fatal cancer diagnosis. It felt like watching her die ever so slowly.

That, coupled with her own bout of hepatitis, put Duncan behind at school. Newport Harbor High felt like a land of hypocrisy to her. Some of her classmates were so wealthy, they drove to school in the Porsches gifted as birthday presents, she says. Cocaine was readily available.

“I felt like I was in like a house of mirrors,” Duncan says. The pressure ultimately drove her from school.

The teenage Duncan left for Pennsylvania. But the racism and drug use she saw there scared her. She reached out to her father to talk about coming home to California. “I didn’t see how my life was going to yield anything positive, you know?” she recalls.

But her father had conditions for her return. She had to enroll in community college. Eventually, Duncan transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, where she pursued a degree in anthropology.

The move gave her culture shock. Duncan was living alone for the first time. And compared to the low standards she encountered in community college, suddenly she was plunged into a world of 15-page papers and academic rigor. But ultimately it was a world Duncan would rise in.

“The truth at my core is I feel all kinds of imposter syndrome,” Duncan says. “I have issues around feeling smart enough, skilled enough, learned enough.”

Those same feelings followed her to Sweet Land. She had enjoyed opera casually in the past, playing it as study music or attending the rare performance as a fancy date night with a girlfriend. But Sweet Land would be her first immersion in the art form.

“The musicality, I like. I like the hyperbole of opera, which is not dissimilar from some hyperbole in poetry,” she says.

She and her co-librettist Kearney—who had written for opera before—decided to lean into that tendency for extremes. Ahead of a meeting with the Sweet Land creative team in Berlin, she says they wrote a “first Thanksgiving” draft but scrapped it. They had something bigger in mind.

What emerged instead was a daring work that used a forked narrative to tell two separate stories. The audience would be divided in two: One half would watch one story. The other half would witness another. Both halves would reunite at the end of the opera, oblivious to what the other had experienced.

Duncan says she deliberately avoided other operas before writing Sweet Land—especially those that depicted Indigenous peoples. “I wasn't a clean slate, but I didn't have the inscriptions of the operatic tradition on me. And that was liberating.”

Each narrative in Sweet Land features two groups, the Hosts and the Arrivals. Tensions heighten over control of the land—and the Hosts’ sovereignty, even over their own bodies.

In one narrative, “Feast,” the heroine Makwa—whose name means “bear” in Ojibwe—nearly stabs the cowboy who tries to claim her, only to be served up as his wife on an actual dining room table in the next scene. She arrives wrapped in a fabric like tinfoil, almost like a Thanksgiving turkey.

“Douglas and I were having a lot of conversations about racism and just the construction of American exceptionalism and notions of America,” Duncan says.

Throughout the creative process, there was debate over how specific or universal Sweet Land should be. Duncan leaned toward specificity, initially infusing her part of the libretto with Ojibwe names.

But as Sweet Land evolved, certain elements faded, while others gained prominence. The trickster character Coyote survived every iteration of the script, but the pervasive use of Ojibwe did not.

“It was almost like we were sculpting from lots of text,” Duncan says, adding that she and Kearney wrote “multiple novels’” worth of material. “Because we had so much content, we were sort of carving, carving away aspects of it.”

Ultimately, Duncan believes the relative universality of Sweet Land allows audiences to observe “the range of ways in which migration and immigration—arrival and dislocation—took place, have taken place, and continue to take place here.”

“It was just an attempt to make a big enough container that we all felt we could put our hearts into it,” she says.

Disrupting traditional narratives was key to Sweet Land, and that philosophy extended beyond the stage. Behind the scenes, the creative team represented a range of Indigenous, Black, and Asian perspectives. Duncan herself identifies as queer. And with so many voices brought together on one project, traditional opera hierarchies were likewise upended.

For instance, Duncan knew that, in opera, there was a longstanding tradition of librettists playing second fiddle to composers. But while writing Sweet Land, she and co-librettist Kearney both had the opportunity to work closely with the opera’s two composers.

She remembers one member of the creative team remarking, “You know, this is the only time I’ve ever seen the librettist have so much engagement through the whole course of production.”

“I definitely think for folks who've worked a lot in the opera world, it was very different,” Duncan says. “I definitely would never work a traditional opera where the librettists are just monkeys typing, which is kind of how I feel the history of it has been.”

It has now been nearly a year since Sweet Land premiered—and since the coronavirus pandemic cut short its critically acclaimed run in the Los Angeles State Historic Park. But Duncan has noticed a difference in the way strangers react to her now—something that speaks to opera’s power in the popular imagination.

“One of the most fascinating things for me about being on this project is, when I would share with people that I was working on an opera, everyone would stop talking and turn to me as if I was something incredible,” she says. “There's something about the power, the mystique, the fear—the ways in which other people feel inferior in the face of opera. It still has that incredible potency.”

When asked if she would return to the opera world after her debut libretto, Duncan stops to consider. It’s not lost on her how many years and how many resources were invested in a project like Sweet Land.

“Our society doesn't look the way it does because we all have shared access to financial resources,” she says. “So if I knew that I could pay a lot of Native and Black artists and musicians and performers and dancers to be in a project for a long period of time? Totally.”

 

 

Learn more about Aja Couchois Duncan on Twitter, and visit The Industry’s website for information about how to stream Sweet Land, available for purchase on demand.

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