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Robbie Robertsonís  Music for the Native Americans CD cover

Bonnie Jo Hunt {format} {format} 5:36 Gregg McVicar

A Sioux singer layers opera over insects.

Broadcast: Nov 14 2004 on NPR Day to DaySeries: Earthsongs Subjects: Opera, Native, Music

Interview: Bonnie Jo Hunt discusses how she became an opera singer

April 15, 2004 from Day to Day

ALEX CHADWICK, host: A story now that begins with a young Sioux girl who lived in North Dakota and wanted to become an opera singer. This dream is not so easily realized anywhere, and certainly not on a remote Indian reservation. But it is not impossible, as soprano Bonnie Jo Hunt can tell you. She spoke with "Earthsongs" producer Gregg McVicar.

Ms. BONNIE JO HUNT (Opera Singer): One day, my dad and I were traveling in the car, and I heard this very strange tone. It just sounded (makes noise)--like that. And I thought, `Wow, that's really interesting.' So I asked him what it was and he said, `Oh, you don't want to hear that.' And he reached over and he changed the station. And he said, `That's opera, and all operas are real boring, and all opera singers are great, big fat people.' So I didn't dare tell him, but I thought, `Boy, that's an interesting sound.'

And what attracted me was that I thought it would be very hard to get a voice like that. But I thought I could do it. And I was 10 then. And we lived at Ft. Totten, North Dakota--Devils Lake Sioux, there. And I was scared, too, because I thought, `Gosh, I think I'll need a voice teacher.' And there were, needless to day, no voice teachers and there were no pianos even. I also thought I should have a piano.

One morning, at the breakfast table, my mother said to me, `(Gasps) I didn't know you could sing! Why didn't you tell me that you could sing?' And I said, `Oh, I can't. I can't.' She said, `Yes, you can sing. You were singing in your sleep, and you hit the most beautiful high notes. They sounded just like bells.'

Well, that's all I needed. I raced outside to find my little friend Weasel, Weasel Norsby(ph), and I asked her, `Weasel, will you join the talent show with me?

(Soundbite of soprano singing)

Ms. HUNT: I do a lot of traveling because of our non-profit organization. We work with children on self-improvement. So I'm out on the reservations much of the time. And I had these messages saying that Robbie Robertson said to get in touch with me. So we went in studio. He said, `I want you to do whatever you feel like. And, now, these are crickets.' So I thought, oh, my goodness. I'm to accompany crickets, see?

(Soundbite of soprano singing)

Ms. HUNT: And when I heard them, I was so ashamed of myself, I was so humbled, because I had not given them enough respect. Jim Wilson recorded crickets in his back yard, and he brought it into the studio and went ahead and lowered the pitch and lowered the pitch and lowered the pitch. And they sound exactly like a well-trained church choir to me. And not only that, but it sounded to me like they were singing in the eight-tone scale. And so what--they started low, and then there was something like I would call, in musical terms, an interlude; and then another chorus part; and then an interval and another chorus. They kept going higher and higher.

(Soundbite of soprano singing and crickets chirping)

Ms. HUNT: They were saying cricket words. I kept thinking, `Oh, I almost can understand them. It's a nice, mellow tone. And they never went off pitch until one of the interludes, where they went real crazy and they got back on again to where they were. And I know that people do not know that they're listening to crickets unless they're told that that's what that is.

(Soundbite of soprano singing and crickets chirping)

Mr. ROBBIE ROBERTSON (Recording Artist): This was the way of it. It is a river. It is a chant. It is the medicine story. It is what happened long ago. It is a bead in a story belt. It is what has been forgotten. It is the smell of sweet grass and cedar and prayers sent to the sky, father. It is a way, a tradition, the way it was always done. It is a feeling of warmth, the sound of our voices. Listen, I am dancing beneath you.

(Soundbite of soprano singing and crickets chirping)

CHADWICK: Sioux soprano Bonnie Jo Hunt. She's founder of Artists of Indian America. She was accompanying a chorus of crickets and songwriter and recording artist Robbie Robertson. Her interview by "Earthsongs" producer Gregg McVicar came to us from Hearing Voices.

We like to dream ourselves here at DAY TO DAY--dream of getting away, of escaping perhaps from--well, from the day-to-day, you know? Why not chuck it all, have a pina colada, go to the beach, live at the beach? We're looking for stories of people who've done just that--not to the beach, but escaped somewhere. If you know someone who has dropped out of life to just go off and be happy, drop us an e-mail. Our address is daytoday@npr.org. That's daytoday@npr.org. And we'll share with you how some of those dreams come out.

I'm Alex Chadwick. This is DAY TO DAY.