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Kalispel opera called 'magical'

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USK, Wash. ? A Salish and English translation of an opera composed in German combined classical music and American Indian traditions into an 'incredible, special and magical' production of Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' here on the Kalispel reservation.

Native flute-playing, a drum group led by a Kalispel elder, a donated cougar skin, a blanket dance, an heirloom flute and Kalispel makeup suggestions enhanced an extraordinary collaboration between Libby Kopczynski's New York City-based the other company and Francis Cullooyah and the Frog Island Singers.

Kopczynski, artistic director of the other company, said the response of the crowd, fairly well split between American Indians and non-Natives, was 'fantastic,' and noted 'everyone stayed for the whole thing.'

The artistic director estimated that 1,200 people, from as far away as Salt Lake City, were drawn to the tribal pow wow grounds for a 'Shared Flute' performance that's been in the works for a year, since she put on another opera in a church at nearby Newport, Wash.

The Spokane native kept thinking about how to involve the tribe as she directed a performance of 'Dialogues of the Carmelites,' an opera by Francis Poulenc, at the United Church of Christ there last summer.

After that performance, she began to think how 'The Magic Flute,' a series of folk tales about a journey both serious and humorous, and the flute of its title could be linked to the Native American flute tradition, might be the vehicle to make the connection.

Meeting Cullooyah last fall through the late Coeur d'Alene tribal member Peter Campbell (to whom the performance was dedicated), she remembered that the Kalispel elder was quickly open to the collaboration.

Cullooyah said he'd only been to one opera in his life, more than 30 years ago, but he listened to the story line, noted its similarity to coyote myths and decided it would be good to educate tribal members and especially children about opera. He also said some of the characters in the story, like the bird-catcher, the priests and the three spirits had some cultural relevance as well.

So the two looked for a site, settling on the pow wow grounds after a January expedition through the snow to check it out.

'The site is just gorgeous,' Kopczynski said, and 'the acoustics are great.'

Kopczynski got to work assembling the cast of all-volunteer singers and musicians she needed. She cast 13 principal singing roles, as well as a chorus of eight or 10, plus production talent.

Some of her people came from near her New York City base ? musical director/pianist Scott Rednour and set designer Pam Noel, who combed through stores in Manhattan's garment district to find the black-themed costumes.

Others came from Spokane or the West Coast ? flutist Billy Davis from San Francisco and stage director Chris Fisher from the Seattle area.

Cullooyah, meanwhile, prepared to translate the spoken part of the opera into Salish and got the Frog Island Singers ready to perform a 'Kalispel Intertribal' song he learned from his brother. The Singers are Stanley 'J.R.' Bluff Jr., David Bluff, Kimberly Bluff, Louie Bluff, Rodney Nomee, Amber Nomee, Cullooyah, Wilma Cullooyah, Taunie Cullooyah, Kayleen Sherwood, LaRae Wylie (who also played Papagena in the opera), and Kareena Martin.

Cullooyah said he mixes males and females into the group because he wants the girls to learn the songs, language and tradition he can pass on to them.

Word of the unusual collaboration got out through a variety of media, and the 1,200 opera goers completely outstripped the 500 printed programs as flutist Loren Swan, a Coeur d'Alene, played the audience into their places at dusk on performance night, Aug. 29.

Before darkness fell, the audience, including representatives of the Spokane, Idaho's Coeur d'Alene and Bonners Ferry Kootenai and Montana's Salish and Kootenai tribes could see beautiful views of the Pend Oreille River and the Selkirk Mountains as backdrops for the opera.

Native flute turned into classical piano and flute as the overture began. Then the Frog Island Singers performed. Flute and piano concluded the overture, and the drum played again, and then Cullooyah began his narration, storyteller-style, in both English and Salish.

'I had to make up my own Kalispel verbiage' for some of the narration, he said, laughing, adding it was a collaboration between 'only Mozart and I.'

'The Magic Flute' is the story of a journey, and it starts with a prince being chased by a beast. Victor Piengkham, Kalispel, played the beast, enhanced by a local cougar skin to heighten the terror.

The drum group played softly under some of the singers, and rose to a flourish for the entrance of the Queen of the Night, played by Diana Milburn.

In the opera, the attendants to the Queen of the Night give the Prince a magic flute to help him on his quest to rescue a princess. The one used belongs to Cullooyah. A gift from an inmate in the Washington correctional system, it features hand-carved figures of a loon's head and an otter.

Kopczynski, a singer who also uses the name Libby Moore, cast herself as an attendant of the Queen of the Night, and the attendants took her makeup cues from Cullooyah, who suggested they paint half their face black.

At intermission, a blanket dance was performed, and also a jingle dance by Taunie Cullooyah, Francis' daughter. And after the second half ended everyone in the pow wow grounds joined hands in a giant circle of 1,200 individuals.

Kopczynski called the night and the collaboration 'incredible, special and magical.' Said Cullooyah, 'I enjoyed it and my children enjoyed it, and everybody I spoke to that came up to us let us know they really, really enjoyed it.'

Kopczynski would like to take the production back to New York City.

'I think we would probably do it,' Cullooyah said of the Frog Island Singers, based on the success of the collaboration and the energy it inspired.

'I still feel good about it today,' Cullooyah concluded the day following the performance.