Documentary Feature | The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ Directed by John Bolton Available To Stream December 14 2023

Documentary Feature
The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ
Directed by John Bolton

A new opera film will take the work of pioneering Canadian composer Barbara Pentland and bring it into the 21st century. Pentland wrote the opera The Lake in 1952 about the  Syilx people of British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, and their first contact with settlers. 

The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ (Still courtesy of TELUS Originals)
The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ (Still courtesy of TELUS Originals)

The new project is said to be the first Canadian opera shot specifically as a film. It spotlights Westbank First Nation elder and artist Delphine Derickson, and award-winning Canadian soprano Heather Pawsey, who worked together over two years to create a film out of the opera that was never staged during Pentland's lifetime.

The TELUS original documentary feature The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ will be available on December 14th to audiences across Canada free on demand and online worldwide at this link

The story of an opera… 

The new version incorporates the perspectives and culture of the Syilx people. More than just the story of how an opera was adapted, the film becomes a story about the friendship between Heather Pawsey of Astrolabe Musik Theatre, and Delphine Derickson of Westbank First Nation.

It combines Indigenous and non-Indigenous storytelling, music and dance, some from the original productions, along with an honest oral history of the ups and downs of the project. 

Essentially, as the materials state, it's a film about what can be possible when people truly listen to each other.

True reconciliation isn’t just lip service or social media posts. It’s looking to try and redress the wrongs of the past as we acknowledge the First Nations culture and society today.

The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ (Still courtesy of TELUS Originals)
The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ (Still courtesy of TELUS Originals)

Director John Bolton

Why did you take on the project? Can you give an overview of how that story of making the opera became a compelling piece in itself?

"The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ —like my previous hybrid documentary Aim For The Roses (about the album by Mark Haney), and like my forthcoming hybrid documentary King Arthur’s Night (about the medieval musical play by James Long, Marcus Youssef, Niall McNeil and Veda Hille) —is a film about a work of art, as well as an adaptation of a work of art. In all three cases, I found the backstories just as interesting as the stories, and I felt inspired to explore the parallels between the creators and their creations.

"The biggest difference The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ and the other two projects is that my subjects —Delphine Derickson, of Westbank First Nation and Heather Pawsey, of Astrolabe Music Theatre —approached me about making a movie about their collaboration, not the other way around. I already had a relationship with Heather (we’d wanted to work together for a while), but I didn’t have a relationship with Delphine, so I (along with Heather) took a trip to Westbank First Nation to meet her.

"The more time I spent with Delphine and Heather, the more I realized that this was really a story of a friendship, and if I focused on that, I’d figure out how to make the rest of the film, which is indeed what happened.I’ll admit that there were times when I wondered if I —as a non-Indigenous filmmaker —was the right person for the job, but Delphine gave me the most incredible encouragement and support throughout. Looking back, I feel less like I was invited to make a movie, and more like I was invited to participate in a cross-cultural collaboration that had been happening for a long time, and that continues to this day." 

The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ (Still courtesy of TELUS Originals)
The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ (Still courtesy of TELUS Originals)

Q&A with Heather & Delphine

What drew you to this particular work?

Heather: It found me. I knew from the moment I opened the score of The Lake that it was a work I was going to have a long and close relationship with—though I could never have imagined that it was going to be this long and this close!

What is the story behind reviving Barbara Pentland’s opera? I’ve read that Heather has been involved since its overdue live premiere in 2014 (at least)> Why is it important to present this work?

Heather: I found the score for The Lake at the Canadian Music Centre, BC region in 1995 when I was looking for an aria from a Canadian opera to sing in the Eckhardt-Gramatée National Music Competition. I discovered that the opera was a true story that had happened in BC’s Okanagan Valley in the 1870s; that it was the only opera that Barbara Pentland had composed; and that it had never been performed. Barbara Pentland is one of Canada’s most important composers, and had been a strong advocate at a time when women weren’t taken seriously as composers. At the beginning, it was important to me to produce the opera to honour Barbara, her work, her advocacy, and her musical legacy. Of course, the project turned into something much, much more …

The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ (Still courtesy of TELUS Originals)
The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ (Still courtesy of TELUS Originals)

The 1950s were not known for informed representation of First Nations peoples or culture. Would I be correct in assuming the First Nations characters and culture in Dorothy Livesay’s libretto are somewhat problematic?

Delphine: We don’t sacrifice animals; we don’t throw pigs and chickens into the water. We don’t do a ceremony; we never held a ceremony at the lakeshore or, if our ancestors did, it would be private, sacred.

Heather: Dorothy Livesay wrote her libretto based on the memoirs of Susan Allison, the protagonist of the opera and first settler in what is now West Kelowna. A Métis character in the opera, Johnny MacDougall, was a real person, who built Susan and John Allison’s house at Sunnyside Ranch. How he is portrayed in the opera — as a friend and source of knowledge about the syilx/Okanagan culture — is not necessarily how he was viewed by the syilx/Okanagan people then or now.

Does the story change, or is it essentially the same tale of the syilx people and first settlers in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley?

Delphine: I don’t think it changed. The only thing that changed was including people of today, who are alive, with their culture. 

Heather: Delphine and I created a scene where an Indigenous woman and a settler woman meet, not knowing each other’s languages or cultures, and they reach out and try to communicate, try to build a bridge.

Delphine: Heather and I role-modelled how we can work together. It doesn’t matter about our backgrounds, what colour skin we are or our culture, or whatever —we modelled that we can work together.

How does Ogopogo fit into the story? What is its significance in syilx culture?

Heather:  nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ is what Susan Allison believed she saw on that stormy day in 1873. The original opera is her telling her story of that sighting

Delphine:  nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ is part of our history. It’s part of who we are as sqílxʷ people.

The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ - Excerpts from Opus 59 Films on Vimeo.