Opera puts whaling history on stage

Aiden Hartery is going to have ‘a whale of a time’ over the next year or so as he pens his first opera, the first musical work ever focused on Red Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Basque whalers of the 16th Century.

Toward that effort, the Don Wright Faculty of Music PhD student was recently awarded a $2,000 scholarship from the Amina Anthropological Resources Association, a not-for-profit organization that researches, preserves and promotes archaeology, cultural heritage and artistic resources in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The scholarship focuses on research at Red Bay and the Basques – from the western Pyrenees that straddle the border between France and Spain on the Atlantic coast – a group who intensively used this area from 1530-1600 to hunt migrating whales. More than 20 stations were set up along the Strait of Belle Isle to process whale blubber, which was rendered into oil on site and then shipped in casks to Europe.

“My advisor, (Research and Composition professor) David Myska, and I were chatting in my first couple of months here as to what I wanted to do for my dissertation,” said Hartery, who completed two undergraduate degrees at Memorial University in Newfoundland and a Master’s of Composition at the University of Toronto before heading to Western.

“Initially, I wanted to do an orchestra work, specifically a trombone quartet. I did trombone in undergrad. But we began talking about other possibilities and avenues I might take and, on paper, an opera kind of appeals to a broader public.”

Paul Mayne // Western NewsDon Wright Faculty of Music PhD student Aiden Hartery was recently awarded a $2,000 scholarship from a Newfoundland and Labrador non-profit to help him write an opera on the history of Red Bay and the Basque whalers of the 16th Century.

During the height of their annual visits in the 16th Century, in search of right and bowhead whales, as many as 2,000 Basque whalers arrived in the Strait of Belle and Quebec’s Lower North Shore, with at least half of these men heading directly to Red Bay.

Whale oil was a valuable commodity in Europe during that time and was used in lamps, as well as an additive for paints, varnishes and soap. Other parts of the whale were also used, such as baleen, for whips, umbrellas, petticoats, corsets, and even eye glasses.

“There are so many stories there and an unlimited amount of history and folklore. How do you pick just one?” said the Labrador City-born Hartery. The global significance of the Red Bay Basque Whaling Station was recognized through its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013.

“To receive that sort of status, there must be a story there. So, with that in the back of my head, I started digging,” added Hartery, who visited Red Bay National Historic Site last November and spoke with local researchers. “It’s actually amazing how much Canadian history is in Newfoundland and Labrador and, specifically, in this project.”

Hartery’s opera will tell the story of Basque whaler Juan Martinez de Larrume, who was among the hundreds who died in 1577 after having to stay over in Red Bay as an unexpected early winter trapped their ship. de Larrume’s will was discovered and remains one of the oldest legal documents in North America.

“The story will focus on his crew coming over, doing their thing and being met, for some reason, to have to stay late in the season to meet their quota,” he said. “This winter was early, which caught them off guard, so maybe the opera will focus on them losing a portion of their oil as the reason for having to stay later. When you come from a very temperate part of Spain, to sub-Arctic Labrador, you’re not prepared for the winter. Perhaps they died from scurvy or exposure.”

Hartery said a subplot may look at the interaction between the Basque whalers and the native Labradorians – the Inuit people, in particular – who were known to have traded with them and perhaps worked with them on the whales.

Hartery is planning to begin his collaboration with Newfoundland playwright Megan Coles on the opera this fall. Following a visit to the Basque region this summer, he’ll return home to Newfoundland and Labrador to begin writing.

“I’m still doing research at this point and my fourth year will be dedicated to writing the opera,” said Hartery. “When you come into this program, it’s on you to write this piece (dissertation), to produce it and hopefully pass. But now, there are so many people involved. It has snowballed into me writing, the people who do the Basque research are now involved, then you involve another writer. Ideally, you then have an opera company who will hopefully be attracted by this project to want to perform it.”

Hartery is currently developing whale songs for orchestra at Western, which he’d like to incorporate into the opera.

“You may think, ‘How do you do that?’ But when you listen to whale calls it’s kind of easy to imagine that as a musical instrument,” he said. “And it’s not one instrument, it’s three or four. You have low guttural roars of the whale and then the high whistles. When you pair those with a couple instruments you get an interesting result.”

Hartery hopes to premiere his opera in St. John’s in the 2018-19 season – perhaps followed by a mini provincial tour – to coincide with the arrival of the San Juan, a replica of a 70-foot-long whaling ship, currently being built in Spain, that will be sailing back to Newfoundland and Labrador sometime in the next couple years. The original San Juan ran aground and sunk off Saddle Island in Red Bay in 1565 following a major storm.

Hartery understands he has a lot of work ahead of him, but he can’t wait to set sail.

“I’m definitely in the deep end,” he laughed. “But this is an exciting part of Canadian history. I can’t wait to share the story with others.”