Sun Dance began with a desire by Matt and Lenny Walton to collaborate on an opera with a social justice message. After considering several topics, they decided that Leonard Peltier's story was not only compelling, but also not well known, particularly among younger generations. Moving across the country from California to Pennsylvania in 2002, Matt stopped in Lawrence, KS to visit the then-offices of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. He was fortunate to have a chance to speak with Leonard on the phone, and Leonard's support, as well as the enthusiasm of the people associated with his case, convinced Matt and Lenny that they were on the right path.
The two began working on Sun Dance in the Fall of 2002, with Lenny developing the libretto mostly from primary sources. The opera was almost done by Fall 2003, when Matt returned to Syracuse to begin a M.A. in Political Science. Matt had worked closely with the Syracuse Society for New Music while pursuing an undergraduate degree in Music Composition at Syracuse, and the Society wholeheartedly supported the project, both as a contemporary opera by a young composer, and as a challenging artistic and political statement. Neva Pilgrim, of the Society for New Music, took on the production of the opera and brought on Victoria King as director.
Much later in the project the composer and librettist discovered that their work shared a title with the first opera to be written by a Native American, a piece called The Sun Dance, which was premiered in 1913 and written by Gertrude Bonnin. The authors took the name for their opera from Leonard Peltier's prison writings, which are titled My Life is My Sun Dance. Since Leonard views his struggle through the lens of sacrifice exemplified by the Sun Dance, they chose to honor his perspective by adopting this title.
The opera was premiered by the Syracuse Society for New Music at the Cazenovia Counterpoint Music Festival on July 7th and 8th, 2005. One of those performances was webcast live to a global audience. Prior to that, the performers gave workshop performances of scenes at Nottingham High School and Syracuse University. The full cast and crew of the premiere performances are listed below. The opera was performed again at Syracuse University on February 10, 2006. After those performances, Lenny and Matt made a number of revisions to the opera to bring it to its present form.
To watch excerpts from the premiere, visit the Watch page.
To hear excerpts from the revised version of the opera, visit the Listen page.
Crew of the premiere performances of Sun Dance:
Director: Victoria King
Producer: Neva Pilgrim (Syracuse Society for New Music)
Set Design: Jarrod Bray
Costume Design: Robin Miller
Lighting Design: Jake Bray
Stage Managers: Allyson Kinney & Paul Melnikow
Light Operator: Thom Dellwo
Spot Operator: Scott Hill
Stage Crew: Jason Pogacnik
Video and Titles: Zach Phillips
Projection Assistance: Diego Davidenko
Conductor: Matthew J. Walton
Flute: Linda Greene
Clarinet: David Abrams
Violin: James Krehbiel
Cello: Florent Renard-Payen
Piano: Steven Heyman
Keyboard: Phil de Chateauvieux
Cast of the premiere performances of Sun Dance:
Carol Ansell Spradling
Alex de Montigny (Narrator, Leonard Peltier)