Background Notes

Notes by Pocahontas librettist Joan Vail Thorne

The opera Pocahontas, with music by Linda Tutas Haugen and libretto by Joan Vail Thorne, is about the miracle and the mystery surrounding the life of the title character. There is nothing in the opera that contradicts the known “facts” of her story, but there is much of her story that is not known. Therefore, in a nonlinear sequence of “real” and imagined events that bridge time and place, this remarkable young woman is viewed as a prodigy of her Algonquin culture and the admired respected emissary of her father, Powhatan, the Great Chief of numerous Algonquin tribes. She is also seen as the equal in strength and courage of the redoubtable English Captain John Smith and the wife of the English colonist, John Rolfe, the mother of his child and the very first American “woman of two worlds.”

This opera is the work of the imagination that celebrates a life. It does not attempt to explain or to analyze it, it simply marvels at the magnitude and significance of nineteen short years. We have long celebrated our “founding fathers”; we have even struck a coin in honor of another amazing Native American woman; but much of what has been done in art and entertainment about Pocahontas has been grossly inaccurate and ultimately demeaning to her heritage. Despite her origins in a culture that allowed women positions of influence and power, she has more often than not been seen as the besotted love object of white males. To the contrary, as ambassador of her great father, she was a savior of theJamestowncolony in a time of terrible drought. Later in her life, again as an ambassador in a triumphant visit toEnglandwith her colonist husband, John Rolfe, she became the toast ofLondon, enjoyed the aristocracy’s extravagant admiration, and was received at the court of King James I.

Ironically, it was in the midst of this triumph that she met her untimely end. Even her death was prophetic. Although no one can definitely cite the cause, it probably came from the microbes of a world that would eventually claim not only her life, but the honorable, vigorous civilization of her people. Andre Malranx has said, “Art is a revolt against fate.” This opera would defy death and bring Pocahontas back to life as an example of the intelligence and courage that young people deserve in a role model. Ingmar Bergman has said, “Music is the only art that bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the soul.” This opera would hope to paint Pocahontas deep in the soul of a people who owe their existence in part to her having been born. This opera is a celebration. As the words of the libretto attest:

This is a story
This is not a history
This is a story
This is a mystery

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