Music can be found even in the depths of a gold mine. For Dawn Sonntag, Ph.D., associate professor of music, the search is just beginning.

Hiram students will be joining the Cleveland Opera Theater in Professor Dr. Sonntag’s new opera-in-progress, Coal Creek.  After last year’s successful professional performances of Dr. Sonntag’s first opera, Verlorene Heimat (premiered at Hiram College in 2014) at the 2018 NOW festival, Executive Artistic Director Scott Skiba suggested collaborating with Hiram College students for the 2019 festival. The collaboration on Coal Creek scenes, for which Dr. Sonntag has written both the libretto and the music, is the result.

“The opera takes place along the Yukon near the Coal Creek gold mining camp, which ran from the early 1900’s through the late 1970’s. The story is based on the accounts of historical characters who actually lived and worked at Coal Creek during that time,” says Dr. Sonntag.

She continues, “The National Park Service has preserved the dredge as it was left when it ceased operations in the 1970’s and cleaned the cabins that belonged to the mine; it is now used as a retreat and education center. I have visited Coal Creek three times as a participant of the Alaskan Geographic Composing in the Wilderness program.”

But, this performance isn’t just based in a state far from our own.

“One of the lead characters, Mary Bissell, who came to Alaska as a contract bride—but refused to marry her suitor once she arrived—was born and raised in Connecticut and has ancestral ties with the Ohio Bissells. This is particularly interesting because our opera and musical theater program is funded through a generous grant from the Bissell family in memory of Marcia Kenyon Bissell, who was a voice teacher at Hiram College and directed the opera program here during the 1950’s. Another lead character, Frank Slaven, who built Slaven’s Roadhouse on the Yukon, was born in Canton,” says Dr. Sonntag.

Dr. Sonntag is preserving the culture of the area through the introduction of the Han native Alaskan women who were such an integral part of this story. Shyanne Chulyin Ch’ivaya Beatty has served as a cultural consultant for the opera libretto. She grew up in Eagle, a village near Coal Creek, and spent her summers at Slaven’s Roadhouse. Her aunt is one of only a few Han natives who still speak the Han language. Both her grandfather and great-grandfather worked in the Coal Creek gold mine. Her experiences, memories, and expertise have been integrated into the story.

The performance is Sunday, Feb. 10 at 4 p.m. in Gamble Auditorium at the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory. Admission is free and a talkback is held after the performances for audience members to ask questions and reflect.

This class is an incredible opportunity for Hiram undergraduate students. In the depths of a cold winter, students, faculty, and community members alike will be mining up the warmth of music and culture. Join Hiram students Jaylen Miller ‘22, Nicholas Krasnoschlik ‘20, Paul Muehleisen ‘20, Ryan Mount ‘22, Abigail Stevenson ‘19, Julia Goetz ‘22, Erica Lohan ‘20, Erin Felvus ‘22, voice professor Kyle Kelvington, and alumni Lydia Snyder ‘14 and Sydney Shawgo ‘14, as they make their journey through opera performance.
by Abigail Stevenson

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