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Tohe pens libretto for Navajo oratorio

January 18, 2008

As part of its 60th anniversary season, the Phoenix Symphony decided to commission a work to celebrate the vibrant musical and cultural heritage of Arizona.

Thus was born “Enemy Slayer, A Navajo Oratorio,” with libretto by ASU’s Laura Tohe, a Navajo and an associate professor of English, and music by Phoenix composer Mark Grey.

The oratorio will have its premiere performances at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 7, and 8 p.m., Feb. 9, at Phoenix’s Symphony Hall.

Tohe has been working on the libretto for the oratorio – her first – for the past year in collaboration with Grey.

The story is that of Seeker, a figure adapted from Navajo mythology who was born to protect the Navajo people and rid the world of monsters.

In Tohe’s oratorio, Seeker is a war veteran – perhaps from the Iraqi conflict – who comes back from battle with a feeling of pride at having served his country.

“But the violence of war comes back to him as a dream,” Tohe says. “Then the dreams start invading his life. He descends into a dark place and has thoughts about self-destruction. At the same time, the ancestors are calling him back. The story implies that words have power, that they can be dangerous.

“As Seeker descends to the darkest part, there’s a moment when the voices of the ancestors break through. They offer him a lifeline and lift him out. He comes back into wholeness, and to living a more balanced life: hózhô (translated as “peace and spiritual harmony”).”
Tohe says she didn’t have the Iraq conflict in mind when she started writing “Enemy Slayer,” and that she didn’t intend to make a statement on the Iraqi war.

“It’s a timeless story about human beings who go off to war,” she says.

Before starting to write the libretto, Tohe did extensive research about how veterans cope with war, and discovered that “there is a high rate of suicide and drug and alcohol abuse that is occurring among veterans who come back from Iraq.”

“It makes me wonder what it takes to be healed from these things,” she says. “In Navajo culture, there’s a ceremony to restore veterans to a state of well-being.”

That ceremony comes from Navajo mythology, Tohe says, adding: “There are heroes who are born to rid the world of monsters. To do that, they had to kill the monsters. When they came back, they had to have a ceremony, called the ‘Enemy Way.’ ”

Tohe says the composer’s idea originally was to write a Navajo creation story, “but that would have been controversial, since the creation story belongs within a sacred ceremony in the context of Navajo culture.”

Tohe had never written an oratorio before, and she didn’t know quite where to start.

She and Grey spent one day at Starbucks hashing out the storyline, and they decided to structure the story on the four cardinal directions in Navajo mythology: east, south, west and north.

“Then I said, ‘Mark, how do I write this?’ ” she says. “He said, ‘Write short lines.’ I wrote several lines and e-mailed them to him. Once I got the first few stanzas down, Mark started composing. He had an idea of how he wanted to compose the music.”

The back-and-forth went on for nine months, with Tohe sending poetry and Grey setting it to music.

Some of the words are in English, while some are in Navajo. Tohe also has spent some time with the chorus teaching the singers to pronounce the Navajo words.

Projected behind the orchestra and chorus will be photographs of the Four Sacred Mountains, taken by Deborah O’Grady.

The oratorio opens with a prologue:

Red earth below his feet

Red Earth with open arms

The ground feels familiar

Earth-surface child returns home

From across the big water.

Seeker returns home

Earth Surface child returns

From across the big water

Traveling lightly on a rainbow

And leaves the reign of blood

He calls forth, “shik’éí, shidiné’é” (translated, “my relatives, my people”).

It concludes on a hopeful note, with the phrase “let peace prevail” repeated four times:

Hózhô náhásdlîî dooleeã.

Hózhô náhásdlîî dooleeã.

Hózhô náhásdlîî dooleeã.

Hózhô náhásdlîî dooleeã.

Those words are Tohe’s hope – and the message she hopes “Enemy Slayer” will bring to the world.

Tickets for both performances of “Enemy Slayer” range from $19 to $68. For more information, call the Phoenix Symphony Box office at (602) 495-1999, or visit the Web site