The Public Humanist

Making Invitation: On Bringing an American Opera to Macedonia

Synchronicity is astonishing. I could never have dreamed that our new opera, The Captivation of Eunice Williams (Paula M. Kimper, composer, Harley Erdman, librettist) would be chosen to be presented in Macedonia. Where exactly is Macedonia? Sort of near Greece, right? And yet, there I was on a plane to Skopje. The subject of the opera made it an even more unlikely candidate for this trip to Eastern Europe. The opera tells the story of Eunice Williams, a little seven-year-old girl, who was kidnapped in Deerfield, MA in 1704 by French and Mohawk raiders. She walked on a snowy February night, over 300 miles to Canada, where she would make her home, marry a Native man, become a mother of the long house and live a rich and long life.

Somehow the confluence of history and empathy brought it all about. A friend who had helped dream through the opera, Nicholas Thaw, was speaking to the Minister of Culture in Skopje as they looked at the tumbled down 12th century monastery that was in need of funds for repair. As the Minister apologized for the condition of such a treasure citing long conflict among native peoples and invaders, Nick jumped in noting similar strife in the States with our Native Peoples, and that he knew of an opera that told the story well. The minister simply said that the opera must be presented in Skopje. Off we went.

Through a generous grant from TCG, we were able to visit and guide our new friends through the production. There is a moment from those wonderful wine sodden conversations about art and life and war that changed my life. I came up with what I thought was a great idea: the Mohawk characters could be played by Albanians and the Puritans by the Macedonians. We could have two hours of peace and reconciliation on the stage between these to deeply and complexly conflicted peoples. It would be a first! Look what art can do! They all agreed and nodded with enthusiasm. The Albanian National Theatre Company hosting the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra. Yes, they said. And the English translated into Macedonian and the Mohawk translated into Albanian. All of a sudden a hush washed over the table. Damn. I had that stupid American feeling flush through my cheeks. What had I said? The Artistic Director of the Albanian National Theatre Company, Osman Ahmeti, broke the silence and spoke softly in English. “No, Linda. Translation would cause us great troubles. Great troubles. Did you not know that English is the global language?” Oh God, now I was blundering into creating great troubles. I said that I was so sorry and decided to be quiet for a while and let them get back to putting their ideas together. What ensued was a magnificent creative collaboration between Osman and the representative from the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra. The conversation flowed like water and I just tried to keep up. After a long time there was a lull and I noted how beautifully they were working together and asked why they had never worked together before. Again, it was Osman who spoke after several seconds of silence at the table. “Because no one ever make invitation.”

Those word reverberated through my bones and still do every time I think of them. I felt at that moment as if I understood everything. Invitation was all it took. I vowed from then on to be conscious of “making invitation” at every opportunity.

There are so many more stories to tell. The story of the Croatian man who played the preacher, Stephen Williams, who almost missed a performance because he couldn’t get home from his translating job with the Serbian army as it was too dangerous to drive after an explosion. The Macedonian performer who played Eunice’s husband who gave me a bracelet from a holy site in the mountains just hours after I complained to myself that I would never find a mala that fit my wrist. Seeing the audience weep and rise to their feet after the performance. Staying up all night with the director comparing notes about how hard it is to be a theatre director and producer and wondering why more women don’t do it. Seeing a poster for Captivation on the ancient walls of the old Albanian section of Skopje. Making promises to work together again. Amazing, all of it. It was a deeply meaningful adventure for all of us. I am so grateful that someone made invitation.

Photo couresty of Linda McInerney

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