- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

PORTLAND, MAINE Longfellow’s epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” was written 152 years ago, but Michael Maglaras thinks the story can be as appealing to modern-day audiences as “Superman” or “Star Wars.”Like Clark Kent and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Indian hero Hiawatha has human traits and extraordinary powers, while battling evil and doing right. Mr. Maglaras, the owner of a record company, is now producing a six-CD audio recording of the poem that he plans to complete in late summer.It’s fitting that the CDs are being recorded in a studio here in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s hometown in the year of the 200th anniversary of his birth. Mr. Maglaras hopes the project will stimulate interest in both Longfellow and the art of storytelling.”Hiawatha,” Mr. Maglaras says, is a saga with enough incredible stories giants, magicians, talking animals, Indian gods, fierce battles and a giant sturgeon that swallows Hiawatha whole to captivate today’s audiences.”We’re convinced this story was intended to come alive,” Mr. Maglaras said during a break in a recording session last month.The production should appeal to people who want to be entertained in a “literate, intelligent, sensitive way,” he says. “There is a silent majority out there of people who are hungering after entertainment of a different form.”Mr. Maglaras, 57, is a former opera singer who founded Two17 Records in Stamford, Conn. He has produced recordings of alternative rock and jazz music as well as poetry.He began working on the “Hiawatha” project last year after reading the poem in its entirety and coming away impressed. The work, 22 chapters in all, is based on stories and legends of various North American Indian tribes.When Longfellow published “Hiawatha” in 1855, it was an immediate success. Some 50,000 copies were sold, and it was translated into French, Italian, German and other languages.In time, it became one of the best-known American poems. Who doesn’t know these lines: “On the shores of Gitche Gumee, Of the shining Big-Sea-Water.” Inside a small recording studio last month, Mr. Maglaras recorded performed is a more apt description the final eight chapters of the poem. As he recited “Hiawatha’s” eight-syllable lines, his hands gestured left and right and above while his voice changed pace and pitch and volume as he transformed from character to character.His opera training has helped in acting out more than 45 voices, ranging from the narrator to Hiawatha to seven varieties of birds, gods, old men and women, animals, monsters and magicians. Sound effects and music drums, flutes and shaker instruments will be added later.”He brings a drama to the poem,” says Michael McInnis, who is recording the production at his studio. “Older works are easily dismissed because they fall into the realm of slightly archaic language. He’s bringing a drama to it that has brought the story and the beauty of the poem alive.”Although “The Song of Hiawatha” was a commercial success, it was criticized for being overly sentimental and parodied for its monotonous meter.Among American Indians, it has been criticized for perpetuating Indian stereotypes but also praised for showing Indian culture even a romanticized version to whites at a time when wars with Indians were still being fought.”There is evidence, certainly, that a good many Indians accepted the poem,” says Alan Trachtenberg, a retired Yale University professor and the author of “Shades of Hiawatha.”Mr. Maglaras maintains that the poem is a “great national epic” worthy of a dramatic performance not just a reading.”Hiawatha in its entirety has not been recited aloud in over 120 years anywhere we can find,” he says. “And certainly never with sound effects and Native American music and all the things we’re doing.”Steve Bromage, assistant director of the Maine Historical Society, says he thinks there’s a market for a CD set of the poem. More than 15,000 people each year visit the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, the home where Longfellow spent his youth that is now owned by the society.”You’d be amazed at the people who come through here and feel a connection to Longfellow,” Mr. Bromage says.Mr. Maglaras plans an initial run of 5,000 or so boxed CD sets with a cover photo of Longfellow in his older years, a bushy beard and flowing white hair and a cape about his shoulders. The CD sets will sell in the $30 range.He is also planning a live performance in December where he will read “The Song of Hiawatha” from cover to cover in an auditorium in Portland.”We’re delighted to be recording this in Portland,” he said, “because this is Longfellow country.”

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