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The Turtle Wakes

by Yanick Leclerc

Turtle MountainEarly North American Aboriginals believed the earth and all its components possessed a unique spirit, an identity. They named a mountain in the Crowsnest area Turtle Mountain: the mountain that moves. However, settlers who later established a town called Frank at the base of Turtle Mountain didn't heed the implications of its name.

Turtle Mountain awoke on April 29, 1903 at 4:10 a.m. and unleashed a juggernaut - 1,400 feet high, 3,000 feet wide, 500 feet thick, and weighing 90 million tons - that buried sleeping settlers and 1.2 square miles of Frank under 45 feet of rock in less than 100 seconds. Only 12 of more than 70 victims were unearthed.

Rick McNair wrote a play about the Frank Slide tragedy that was first performed in 1979. Now, with the support from the Calgary Opera, McNair has teamed up with Duval Lang, Artistic Director of Quest Theatre, and Allan Bell, a composer, to stage his play as an opera entitled Turtle Wakes.

"People who witnessed the event said after the mountain fell there was a tremendous whoosh of air, like a huge breath or giant sigh," says Bell, describing his conversation with a geologist who said the slide moved so far and so fast because it was borne on a cushion of air. The geologist thought the tremendous whoosh of air heard by witnesses after the slide was the sound of the rocks settling and releasing the cushion of air.

Turtle Mountain Slide Archive Photograph Turtle Wakes is for both young people and families. It airs at the Jack Singer Concert Hall February 22 until February 26, 2001.
Bob McPhee, General Director and CEO of Calgary Opera says, "By bringing our two companies together, we converge our resources: Calgary Opera's expertise in the production of opera and Quest Theatre's in the presentation of school performances."
Bell feels the Frank Slide tragedy has all the necessary ingredients for an opera. "There's larger-than-life story taking place," says Bell. "There's an amplification of human emotion and interaction that is necessary for all the singing that expresses deep inner emotion.
Bell translated Alberta's heritage of soundscape, landscape, and mountainscape in the music he scored for Turtle Wakes. He describes this translation process with a word of his own invention: aurage, which is a blend of the words aural and image. "An image remains in the mind's eye after you've seen something," explains Bell. "An aurage remains in the mind's ear after you've heard something." Bell carefully listens until filled with aurage, then translates it into musical colours through composition.
Bell also strives to capture the rhythms and mannerisms of western Canadian English in Turtle Wakes, so that, according to him, "When people sing there's a taste of Alberta in it."

Lang, Producer and Associate Director on the project, believes the opera blends well with the school curriculum because it includes the settlement of western Canada and the coal mining industry. Lang says history is a wonderful resource for theatre.

"Lots of kids think history is boring, dusty, and dry when, really, it's filled with fascinating people - once you discover their lives and what they were passionate about."

Just as the Frank Slide event was borne on a cushion of air, the Frank Slide story is borne on breath. "There's an idea of breath that keeps the story and the life going," says McNair. "Here we are 100 years later, using victim's actual names. Even after their deaths, they have a touch of immortality." The opera includes eight characters that are composites of actual people who lived and died in the Frank Slide.

Turtle Wakes' composites include a mother, father, and daughter who suffer many hardships on their way to Frank. This is the first place things are going well for them. It's even rumoured the father may become mayor.

There is also a young man from England who is indentured to a farmer. When the boy arrives with the same name as the farmer, the farmer renames him, thus erasing the boy's identity. Like many young people, the boy struggles to rediscover and assert his identity. Another character is Mr. Frank, after whom the town is named. He represents the voice of progress, the human desire to build dreams. Mr. Frank is balanced by a crone who implores others to heed the land.

Lang feels the play touches young people because, "Everyone coming to the new town of Frank was starting fresh. They all had dreams of making this little town and their lives something wonderful. They weren't much older than junior high school kids, who are also beginning to formulate their dreams and how they might achieve them."

Bell adds, "Some of the young people in the audience are not that far removed from homesteading. Their great grandparents may have been homesteaders. Others are children of immigrants who understand the notion of leaving one country to go someplace else for a better life."

Even though the opera brings the audience face-to-face with death, the authors were careful to include a sense of hope. There is a dialogue between the survivors and victims, in which the victim's breath is passed on. "The survivors have the responsibility of honouring the dreams of those who've died, by living out their own dreams, by continuing on," says Bell.

When asked what he feels people should gain from the play, McNair offers, "That they, as one person, affect things way beyond their understanding and have a role to play in their own and other people's lives. Even if it doesn't work out the way they want, their breath becomes the breath of a story."

Yanick LeClerc is a full-time technical writer and part-time freelancer who lives in Inglewood, Calgary's oldest continuously settled community.

Reprinted with permission of the author and Legacy Magazine. 

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