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Coyote’s Dinner

A Toothsome Treat for All

By Roy Esaki

staff writer

MIT Wind Ensemble

Kresge Auditorium

8:00 PM November 30, 2001

Attendees of Friday’s Wind Ensemble concert got a taste of the world premiere of the one-act comic opera Coyote’s Dinner, written by Lecturer Charles Shadle and Senior Lecturer Michael Ouellette from the Department of Music and Theater Arts. The low-scale stage presentation was crisp and simple, the text of the libretto bluntly direct (if not a shade provocative at times), and the singing and acting well done, making the performance easily accessible and enjoyable for even the most operatically disinclined.

The first half of the evening’s program featured the Wind Ensemble playing standard concert repertoire. A fairly nondescript performance of Beethoven’s March No 1. in F was followed without pause by Paul Hindemith’s Geschwindmarsch by Beethoven. The latter piece is a neoclassical “paraphrasing” of March No. 1, wherein variations of Beethoven’s melodies are quoted in disembodied fragments phase by phase, separated by intervals of the motive’s accompaniment. The immediate juxtaposition of the two works was an interesting premise in principle, but wasn’t terribly musically enriching.

The Wind Ensemble played Borton Gould’s Ballad for Band, a relatively unknown “tone painting” of the American composer and conductor “as an expression of a hope for peace,” although there didn’t seem to be any relationship between the piece and peace aside from the general dreaminess of the slow passages. Mendelssohn’s Overture for Winds was a pleasant piece, played with more gusto and vim than the others.

After this obligatory appetizer came the entrÉe of Coyote’s Dinner. The satirical and almost flippantly humorous libretto, written by Michael Ouellette, Senior Lecturer in Theatre, is based on a Lakota folktale, featuring a Don Juanesque trickster Coyote (Carlos Archuleta), his arrogant friend Iktome (Philip Lima) and his oppressed wife (Hillary Nicholson). The characters in the Coyote tale are presented along with a missionary, his oppressed wife, an anthropology professor, and her oppressed research assistant to satirically illustrate the use of dogmatic power, both conservative and liberal, to exploit the oppressed.

The opera starts with Coyote and Iktome, who play the role of a Native American actors hired to perform for the a cultural anthropology presentation, complaining about how they are forced to play stereotyped “Indian roles.” Immediately thereafter, Dr. Sydney Hill (Mary Ann Lanier), the anthropology professor, enters, complaining “What’s this? Tuxedos? Gowns? No beads, no feathers?” and has the actors remove their “civilized” clothes and don traditional buffalo robes and vests. Watching this in pious astonishment is Rev. Hosiah James (William Cutter), who deplores the presentation of “buck naked men, parading” and decries the de-civilization of these Indians whom he had worked so hard to make “decent.” A series of disputes between these two dogmatic figures, the Professor and the Reverend, illustrates their respective oppressive self-righteousness.

Interspersed in these scenes are brief appearances by the research assistant, Tim Johnson (Graham Wright), and the Reverend’s wife, Nancy June James (Mary Tsien); both are clearly exploited and subjugated by their respective masters, and while they are the most minor characters, they merit the most empathy of all.

Eventually, the cultural performance ensues, and the Native American actors act out the Coyote tale. Iktome wants to invite Coyote over for dinner, but leaves to find a duck, warning his wife to watch for Coyote’s “traveling hands”. The wife, upset that she will have only turnips and no meat left for her to eat after the men are done, eats the livers herself (which makes the Reverend burst out, ranting about “the woman’s place”). Coyote enters, seduces the wife with a maudlin barrage of musical love-themes and the livid Reverend livid, shouting “adultery, fornication, uncleanliness, lasciviousness!,” which then prompts the Professor to equally indignantly protest the Reverend’s Christian prudery and white man’s morals.

In a novel, self-conscious theatrical device, Frederick Harris, director of the Wind Ensemble which has been accompanying the opera, stops the music, and chastises the Reverend and the Professor for this unprofessional conduct, and apologizes to the audience. Following this entertaining performance by Harris, Tim and Nancy June commiserate with each other, both admitting that other than their menial servitude, each is all alone

The Coyote-tale ends with Iktome’s wife threatening to cut and serve Coyote’s gonads to replace the eaten livers. The lyrics are not for prudish audiences, or those without a liberal sense of humor: the Coyote and his wife sing “What is this meat?/ Your Balls! Your big, hairy balls!.” Coyote runs away, and Hosiah calls the Professor the “whore of Babylon” and storms off. The opera ends with Iktome’s calling out for “just one for me”.

While dealing with rather weighty issues of ethnic subjugation through copious stereotyping, Coyote’s Dinner served generous portions of comic repartee and humorously melodramatic and caricatured music, and was an enjoyable and painless way to make me honest in saying that I spent Friday night watching an opera.