Sealaska Heritage, Perseverance Theatre to produce first-ever Tlingit opera

Sealaska Heritage, Perseverance Theatre to produce first-ever Tlingit opera

Posted By:
Kathy Dye
Kathy Dye
Published On: March 24th, 2021

SHI to offer training for Indigenous performers next month

March 24, 2021

(About the Artists)

Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) is partnering with Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre to write and produce the first Tlingit opera in recorded history.

This original opera will focus on stories from the Tlingit-Russian War  in Alaska waged in 1802 and 1804 and be based on historical facts and oral traditions as told from the Tlingit perspective. The opera, currently untitled, is being written by Tlingit composer Ed Littlefield and Tlingit librettist Vera Starbard.

The partners will offer the first of a series of workshops in April for Indigenous actors and singers to prepare them to perform in the Tlingit language. Auditions for the full opera production will be held at a later date.

The project began development in December 2020 and is being developed over a multi-year period.

“Though operas are foreign to Tlingit culture, the genre is a natural fit,” said SHI President Rosita Worl. “Our people are known for their oratory, singing and storytelling skills. What better way to familiarize people with Tlingit culture and language than to tell a part of our history through opera?”

The opera will include a score grounded in Tlingit musical and performing arts traditions and events, some of which were held in natural amphitheaters set in mountain valleys. The libretto will revolve primarily around the relatively unknown history of the 1802 Tlingit-Russian war in Southeast Alaska in which the Tlingit and Haida united and were victorious. That victory was followed by their defeat and the Tlingit retreat from Sitka in 1804.

“The Tlingit-Russian conflict is usually presented as a confrontation between ‘whites’ with superior arms and brave but outnumbered and poorly armed Natives. Nothing could be farther from the truth,” Worl said. “The Tlingits saw themselves as victors even as they formally ceded to the Russians the site of their village and fort, now known as Sitka.”

SHI will offer a two-day online singing and acting workshop from April 11-12, which will be led by composer Ed Littlefield and feature theatre veteran Vishal Vaidya, who will share acting and singing techniques that allow participants to sing with a full and open voice. Littlefield will teach Tlingit language basics and strengthen performers’ connection to text. 

About the Artists

Ed Littlefield Shaakindustóow is a Tlingit freelance percussionist, educator and composer based out of Seattle, WA. He is Tlingit from Sitka, Alaska and has released three albums featuring traditional native melodies with the Native Jazz Quartet called “Walking Between Worlds”, “NJQ: Stories” and most recently “NJQ: Southeast: Northwest”. Ed has played K’alyaan in the premier of Battles of Fire and Water and written and performed an original score for Eurydice for Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska. He has done sound design and composition for the world premieres of Our Voices Will Be Heard and composition and cultural advising for They Don’t Talk Back at Native Voices at the Autry, La Jolla Playhouse and Perseverance Theatre. He was the composer and sound designer for Off the Rails at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Sovereignty at Arena Stage. Most recently he was the composer and sound designer for Perseverance Theatre’s Devilfish and The Spirit of the Valley, and the music director for A Tlingit Christmas Carol.

Vera Starbard, T’set Kwei is a Tlingit and Dena’ina writer and editor. She is Playwright-in-Residence at Perseverance Theatre through the Andrew W. Mellon National Playwright Residency Program and Editor of First Alaskans Magazine. Vera is also a writer for the PBS Kids children’s program Molly of Denali, which won a Peabody Award in 2020. She has won numerous local, statewide and national individual writing and editing awards, including the Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award and Alaska Literary Award. Vera currently serves on the KTOO Board of Directors, HowlRound Advisory Council, and Kachemak Bay Writer’s Conference Board. Her full-length play Our Voices Will Be Heard premiered at Perseverance Theatre in 2016. It was then published in the textbook Contemporary Plays by Women of Color in 2017, and turned into a one-hour radio adaptation that aired nationwide in 2018. Her play Devilfish premiered at Perseverance Theatre in 2019, and her play A Tlingit Christmas Carol as a virtual production in 2020. Vera lives with her husband Joe Bedard (Inupiaq/Yup’ik/Cree) on Dena’ina land – now called Anchorage, Alaska.

Perseverance Theatre’s mission is to create professional theater by and for Alaskans. The theatre values community engagement, cross-cultural and cross-racial collaboration, professional rigor and regional voice. Over the past 42 years, Perseverance has produced over 70 world premieres, bringing to life new work, including many stories by Alaskan playwrights. Perseverance Theatre works   with underrepresented artists and communities in hopes of building relationships as a means of telling new stories that deepen our aesthetics while reaching new audiences.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Amy Fletcher, SHI Media and Publications Director, 907.586.9116,; Erika Stone, Perseverance Theatre Director of Marketing and Engagement, (907) 364-2421 ext. 244,  

Photo: Cover of Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká: Russians in Tlingit America, The Battles of Sitka 1802 and 1804, edited by Richard and Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Lydia Black and published by SHI 2008. Cover illustrated by Clarissa Rizal. Note: News outlets are welcome to use this image for coverage of this story. For a higher-resolution version, contact

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