A young soldier returns to Arizona from Iraq, tormented by nightmares.
“I smoked myself in the mad smoke of war. Mothers’ hopes wrapped in bloodied rags,” Seeker, the heartsick warrior, sings his despair in a solo baritone. His wracking confession of violence and his poignant prayer for healing echo back in Navajo, voiced by a 140-member concert choir. A 76-piece orchestra carries the call-and-response storytelling on strings, brass and drums.
Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio—a 70-minute classical work—premiered in February with the Phoenix Symphony. Its first performance prompted a 10-minute standing ovation and sent some from the hall weeping into handkerchiefs.
Laura Tohe, the award-winning author of four poetry books and an associate professor at Arizona State University, created the libretto for an original symphonic score by rising composer Mark Grey. Their work is the first oratorio based on the creation story of an indigenous American people.
The Navajo creation myth tells of twin boys, Monster Slayer and Child Born of Water, who battle a terrible monster to free the world of danger. The boys kill the monster, but are heartsick with their violence. The gods create a ceremony called the Enemy Way (Nidaa’) to balance them again and take away the sickness of war.
Tohe modernizes this myth in her libretto. War leaves Seeker a victim, but through Nidaa’—a real-life Navajo healing ritual—he once again finds harmony with the world.
Tohe writes from a place of knowing. Her father was a Code-Talker in World War II. Her older brother came home from Vietnam fatally damaged and died at age 40. “He never went through the healing ceremony,” she says.
Enemy Slayer will be released as a CD on the Naxos label, and live performances are scheduled for the Colorado Music Festival (July 2008) and the Brooklyn Philharmonic (2009).
“I have learned from my work on this project the power and beauty of our Navajo stories,” Tohe says. “Our oral tradition fits so easily with classical work, this European art form. I felt I was building a bridge. People who come to hear the work are able to walk on a bridge between two worlds.”