Opera in the Woods

MUFFLED VOICES, backpacks and headlamps. We arrive at a remote forest location in the dark: 4 a.m. A trail leads us to a lake and a sky-theatre of stars. The water scintillates, an ageless dance of light and reflection. Ancient awe. Sitting in silence on the shore, we wait. Listening. A whispering wind stirs the pine boughs; water laps against rock; a small night creature – perhaps a deer mouse – rustles in the undergrowth. Still we wait, senses alive.

Across the lake, a soprano voice ascends like a thread of mist rising to the heavens. Enrapturing. Now echoes reply, and the solo voice becomes an entwined duet, at times ethereal, at times raw. The aria soars into the night sky; we see no-one. But there. And again there. Is that loon call part of the music? Or are real loons crying in response? Or both?

A faint light catches our attention as it glides towards us down the lake. A cloaked figure in a canoe tosses a baritone chant of mysterious words toward the shore. A choir answers. The canoe pivots; the singer chants toward the opposite shore. Another choir replies. Forest, lake and sky swell with sound, joy weaves with melancholy. As the aria fades, the canoe approaches and the shaman-like presenter speaks over the water:

Kániotái Níota
A-ja-pek Sam-bú-i Nishi-Shen Nishi-Shen
This is the story of the Princess of the Stars …

So begins Princess of the Stars, the first installment in the mythic 12-part music-theatre cycle of R. Murray Schafer’s Patria. A celebrated composer, educator, author, visual artist and environmentalist, Schafer is also highly regarded as a pioneer of acoustic ecology and founder of the World Soundscape Project. In his highly original 1977 book The Tuning of the World, Schafer undertook a comprehensive examination of our acoustic environment from natural settings through rural and urban “soundscapes” (a term he coined). He became a globally recognized voice drawing attention to the damaging effects of post-industrial noise.

Yet while he condemned the “sonic sewers” of our cities, he did not merely propose simple noise abatement. Instead, he advocated for positive intervention in order to enhance the aesthetic quality of the sonic environment. As an artist, he called for the human imagination to create desirable soundscapes in which to live, and through his work, a new interdisciplinary pursuit emerged: acoustic design. He also devised a systematic program of listening exercises called “ear-cleaning,” intended to sensitize listeners to the sounds in their environment, and championed the preservation of appealing “soundmarks,” like landmarks, distinctive to a particular environment.

Schafer’s seminal work in acoustic studies has opened the ears of a generation of acoustic ecologists, musicians, composers, educators and students around the world, and inspired both acoustic activism and artistry. His exploration of soundscapes in conjunction with a significant lifestyle change – a move to the country where he embraced the rural rhythms of life – also deeply affected his own musical creativity. He began to explore a shift in the context of his music making, taking it out of the concert halls and into the wild places where music was born. Music made along forest trails, beside waterfalls, under the Northern Lights.

It’s in this change that Schafer reaffirms the ancient relationship between music and nature, and encourages musicians to interact with the environment. Sing to the lake! Explore the refraction of sound at dawn and dusk. Turn your voice to the rock face, now the hardwood hills. He takes musicians out of the city and into the boreal forest, out of the orchestra pit and into deep gorges, off the stage and into canoes. Sometimes in the rain, sometimes under a meteor shower. Musicians who embrace the challenge find themselves literally attuned to the natural world. Performers’ sensibilities attain a new awareness. Spiritual? Possibly. Transformational? Definitely. Old musical discoveries are made fresh, the natural world is animate: A lake filled with radiant sounds will sing back! In the musical relationship with nature, the responsive energy flows both ways.

Princess of the Stars, the prologue to Patria, is at once modern and primal. Audience and cast respond not just to the music in the natural setting but also to the mythologized drama, reminiscent of Ojibwa stories. In this instance, the Princess fell from the heavens while listening to Wolf ’s mournful cry, but the startled Wolf lashed out. She fled to a lake – this lake – to bathe her wounds; Three-Horned Enemy dragged her deep into the water as his captive. Now, Wolf searches for Princess to attain redemption.

A Nía Nía Nía Tía Tía Tía …
Tiú Tiú Shanú …

Drums thunder. An enormous war canoe powered by a dozen hooded paddlers emerges on the dark water. Wolf, a giant articulated puppet glowing from within, is mounted on the gunnels. Moving like a spectre, he howls his anguish.

We are in another world, spellbound. Here, archetypes live their mythic lives. Anima and animus. The drama is immediate, compelling. We believe.

Wolf summons the Dawn Birds to help him find the Princess. Six dancers float down the lake, each standing in a lighted canoe. Their colourful wings move in subtle choreography to flute, clarinet, trumpet. A chorus of human voices mimics bird song just as the woodland warblers and phoebes trill and call.

Suddenly, a monster screams. Three-Horned Enemy arrives, also mounted on a war canoe, laughing, howling to a cacophony of bass drums, gongs, tomtoms and paddles that slap the water.


The lake froths with battle; the air vibrates with clamorous music as Wolf and Three-Horned Enemy circle, preparing to ram one another. The paddlers spray us with water as they back-paddle at the last moment, veering aside to reveal a new presence on the far shore.

Just as morning light illuminates the tips of the darkened treetops, Sun-Disk appears, bringing transcendent order. All fighting stops. In his tenor voice, Sun-Disk commands Three-Horned Enemy to release the Princess. She will wander the Earth until Wolf finds her.

Canoes disappear into a hanging lace of mist. Trombone, trumpet and horn echo, then dissolve. The final, otherworldly aria of the Princess fades to stillness. A white-throated sparrow calls. A wary deer steps out of the forest to drink at the water’s edge. We remain, quiet, attentive. There is no applause, only heightened senses, quickened imaginations. Gradually we depart with whispered marvel. A thousand similar dawns unwitnessed. This one always remembered.

Schafer’s effort to connect performers and audience with the natural environment resonates with a deep atavistic need. He decries the desacralization of the natural world and invites us to re-discover the miraculous through the transformative power of art. By remythologizing lakes, trees, the moon and the stars, he awakens lost perceptions. We look again at nature in terms of our relationship to the unfolding cosmos. We are prepared to be enchanted, and to be changed.

Schafer has remarked that if we accept the mythos that suggests the Princess is living beneath the lake, we won’t pollute the water. It’s a fundamental relationship, a sense of reverence, and it’s profoundly realized when transported by such an artistic experience. By extension, of course, we have the potential to bring this attitude to bear on all our environmentally harmful actions and change our ways. Yet this is not our everyday secular reality – quite the opposite. Our society has largely abandoned the view that considers nature sacred. Schafer demonstrates the conviction that an artistically rendered tale can restore that reverence and influence our contemporary attitudes and actions. Mythos shapes ethos.

Throughout the course of the extensive Patria cycle, Schafer employs a range of world mythologies – Greek, Egyptian, Scandinavian – drawing his audience into an ever-increasing participatory role. Near the end of the cycle in Patria 9: The Enchanted Forest, he gives us a task: to find a child who has been lost in the forest at dusk. We take up the search. We go deeper and deeper into the darkening woods, travelling with a children’s choir that buoys our spirits and focuses our intent. We are characters ourselves in the fairy tale. But it’s a threatened forest. We must intervene in the action of the story to save its wild beauty.

In Patria 10: Spirit Garden, we attune ourselves to the cycle of the seasons through a ritualized planting of a garden. But it doesn’t end there. We are called to return in several months for the harvest and the communal sharing of food and music. It’s a long way from the proscenium arch.

By the time we reach the epilogue, And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon, which shares a sensibility with North American Indigenous spirituality, the distinction between audience and performers has disappeared. In this eight-day pageant, enacted in the woods of the Haliburton Forest, we are full-fledged participants challenged to grow in multiple directions. Singers learn to dance, dancers learn to make masks, musicians learn to cook over a fire, and everyone learns to paddle and portage a canoe in order to arrive at the remote site and set up camp. The intent is to live within the mythic imagination itself, to become part of the story, working to bring about the final union of Wolf and Princess through a ritualized hierophany, or sacred drama. Schafer calls this the Theatre of Confluence, the flowing together of all the arts. Its purpose is not entertainment, but transformation.

As an artistic environmentalist, Schafer works to accomplish deep attitudinal change. Patria means homeland, and the overarching theme unifying the cycle is the need for harmony to be restored, not just for the characters but for ourselves as well. We need to find our home in wild places, to sense lakes and forests as mythic realms where, even in the 21st century, marvels happen. It is an urgent theme, and if you listen carefully, the lakes and forests sing the motif back to you.

Rae Crossman
Published in Alternatives Journal Volume 37 Number 4 2011

I played the role of Presenter, the storyteller, in the 1997 and 2007 productions.

The entire 76 minute performance can be heard on the Canadian Music Centre website. To stream the audio file register for a free account.