Chickasaw composer's "Shell Shaker" to open in 2022


Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate

OKLAHOMA CITY – The notion of a grand, two-act opera to showcase Chickasaw culture struck classical music composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate like a lightning bolt.

Tate's epiphany will be a yearlong project to bring "Shell Shaker: A Chickasaw Opera" to life at the University of Massachusetts' Amherst College stage March 5, 2022.

"It is a perfect two-act grand opera," he said with excitement recently. "It's right in line with operas by Puccini, Mozart and Wagner. It tells the story of a young Chickasaw girl nicknamed Loksi' who ultimately becomes responsible for bringing the art and tradition of shell shaking to the Chickasaws." Loksi' is the Chickasaw word for "turtle."

Since production is a year away, readers wishing to experience the opera "in the moment" should discontinue reading at this point because the plot is revealed.

"Loksi' becomes the unexpected hero who appears to be an underdog throughout the opera. It is the perfect hero's journey through life," Tate explained. "Her early life bears sadness, because she can't play well, she can't run as fast as the other children, and she feels excluded."

Loksi' spends most of her time helping her mother and grandmother. Expressing her frustrations, the grandmother advises Loksi' to express her troubles to the river. The young girl ventures to the river and her tears fall into the water. The river stops flowing and listens, advising Loksi' she must leave her village and live in the woods for four years.

The young Chickasaw girl befriends many animals, but none as important to her as an elderly turtle encountered early in her adventure. They are inseparable. As her four-year hiatus from the village nears its end, the elderly turtle succumbs to old age.

Loksi' awakes to find herself a beautiful young woman and discovers the gift of shell shakers from the caretaker of all turtles. She is told to use them when she returns to the village as "your people are singing and dancing."

She journeys back to the village and arrives during the first ceremony of the opening season. The stomp dance is going strong with the men singing and everyone dancing. She quickly straps her new turtle shells to her legs and enters the circle behind the lead singer. As they start singing, Loksi' begins her shell shaking rhythm by stomping as she dances. When the song is finished all the people greet her and tell her how beautiful she danced.

"Loksi' gives Chickasaw stomp dancing the percussive rhythm that is so important to our heritage," Tate explained. "The opera is a story of Chickasaw origin. It has been with us since the beginning of time."

The Emmy Award-winning composer is eliciting assistance from two longtime friends who have contributed to Tate's compositions in past productions.

World-renowned master weaver Margaret Wheeler will design costumes, while Chickasaw language expert Joshua Hinson will interpret and translate the opera's song lyrics in Chickasaw. The graphic design talents of Chickasaw artist Dustin Mater also will be used.

"Shell Shaker is a very romantic and beautiful story," Tate said. "It is full of emotional ups and downs, and it follows a very archetypical operatic theme of someone forced to leave their home in order to grow and learn, then return home so others grow and learn, too."

Tate is a Chickasaw, acclaimed nationally and internationally for writing, producing, performing and directing First American-based classical music projects for orchestras, choral groups and chamber ensembles.

"Shell Shaker: A Chickasaw Opera" is the first of three operas Tate is composing. He is also composing operas in Cherokee and in Osage.

Tate has begun writing the music to the opera. He has identified all characters and determined which roles will sing tenor, baritone, soprano and bass. "Probably the most important part is I have a committed orchestra, conductor and funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation," Tate said with a laugh. "So, now we have a year to make this all come together."


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