March 23, 2008

An ethno-historical cantata

A Native American's Last Testament:  OperaThe man was John Peabody Harrington, a linguist from the Smithsonian who spent four decades gathering notes on native languages spoken from Alaska to South America. He'd come to record the oral history of Mondragon's dying grandmother, Ascencion Solorsano de Cervantes. She was a famous herbal healer and the last known fluent speaker of Mutsun, the language of the Amah Mutsun tribe that lived near California's central coast.

Today, her grandson Joseph is 86, and he's sharing his own memories of Ascencion Solorsano with a different sort of translator: an opera singer.

Mezzo-soprano Helene Joseph-Weil is a music professor at Fresno State. She first learned about Ascencion Solorsano 20 years ago, when she saw a picture of her in the San Francisco Chronicle.

"I was so moved by it," Joseph-Weil says. "And there was something about her photo that just mesmerized me, that I suddenly said: 'I have to sing her. How can I sing her?'"

Along with award-winning composer Benjamin Boone, a fellow Fresno State professor, she is working to put Ascencion Solorsano's oral history into a piece called Ascencion. They're calling it an "ethno-historical cantata."

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