Northern heritage, research, and arts organization, ARAA Inc. named composer Aiden Hartery the winner of this year’s $2000 Pioneer Scholarship Award for his thesis project, an ambitious historical opera.

Originally from Labrador, Hartery is currently enrolled in the PhD Music Composition Program at Western University in Ontario. His thesis will be the currently untitled opera, which is based on the history of Basque whaling in the Red Bay region.

Inspired by historical documents, the opera tells the story of a group of European whalers who were forced to spend a winter in Labrador after their ship sank. Among the documents Hartery is drawing on to write the opera was the will of a whaler named Juan Martinez who did not survive the winter.

“The story of Juan Martinez and the overwintering of the whalers in Labrador will be filled with drama, conflict, death, tragedy, and love (and love lost). All of this fits perfectly in the genre of opera,” Hartery wrote.

Hartery invited Newfoundland author and playwright Megan Gail Coles to write lyrics for the opera. Coles has written several plays and her short story collection, Eating Habits of The Chronically Lonesome won the Re-Lit Award, Winterset Award, and the Margret and John Savage First Book Award.

“As soon as I decided to write an opera, I needed to find a librettist who could collaborate with me and provide a captivating and evocative text … [Megan Gail Coles] has a voice that honestly stands out among many others. I feel lucky and privileged to have her working with me on this project,” Hartery wrote.

Research is part of Hartery’s artistic process; he rarely begins a composition without researching the subject of the piece. When it comes to writing a historical opera he believes research is especially important, and even more so when it is on a topic that has already been the focus of several publications.

“Of course this work will take liberties in places, all works do, but it is my intention to complete a very thorough research into the lives of these whalers … Additionally, through research, the opera will also touch on the relationship that the Basque whalers had with the Labrador Innu at the time,” Hartery wrote.

Hartery intends to incorporate traditional Basque instruments into the score, an endeavour that will also require some research. He explained that while the instruments have been around for centuries they are rarely used by musicians in Canada.

Support from the ARAA Inc. Scholarship Award will make it possible for Hartery to visit the Basque country this summer to learn more about the instruments that will shape the opera’s sound.

The Basque Maritime Heritage Association is currently building a replica of a ship that plays a central role in Hartery’s story, with the intention of sailing it to Red Bay in the near future. Hartery is aiming to finish the opera in time to have its premiere coincide with the ship’s arrival in Labrador.