So here is the promised review of last night at the Four Seasons Centre. I have to phrase it that way because it was more than Somers’ opera Louis Riel though that of course was the major event. The evening kicked off with a performance in the RBA by the Git Hayetsk Dance Group. This is a west coast group and I’m not going to try and get into the complexities of nation, lineage and clan involved but it was a moving performance of traditional songs and dance with a brilliantly witty piece involving the trickster raven and a lot of stolen handbags. This was also the beginning of the public conversation about the use of the Nsga’a mourning song in Louis Riel. That conversation continued when the same group made a brief appearance on the main stage immediately before the opera performance. I understand that the intent is for the leader of the dancers to report back to the matriarch of the clan that owns the song on what happened and for the conversation to continue from there.
Harry Somers’ Louis Riel is iconic. It was the first Canadian opera to be performed by the COC (in 1967) and with its uncompromising musical modernism it stands out quite distinctly from the general corpus of Canadian operas. Even after 50 years it retains an “edgy” quality musically. It’s also iconic in that it uses the story of the Métis rebellions of 1870 and 1885 to explore the nature of Canadian identity. It’s also hugely problematic in that the libretto, quite naturally, sees that issue in 1960s terms; i.e French vs English with a side of Ottawa versus the West. There’s little room for Métis or First Nations sensibilities and the original production, recorded by the CBC in 1969, exacerbated that with a hyper-realistic treatment that made unfortunate use of a number of derogatory stereotypes of Aboriginal people. This was compounded by the use of a sacred Nisga’a mourning song with new words as a lullabye; the most famous part of the opera – the Kuyas – without acknowledgement or permission.
(left to right) Russell Braun as Louis Riel, Jani Lauzon as the Prison Guard, Allyson McHardy as Julie Riel and director Peter Hinton rehearsing Act III, scene v – Photo by Tanner Davies for the COC
Harry Somers’ Louis Riel was written to “celebrate” Canada’s 100th birthday and was performed at the COC in 1967 and 1968 and was given a studio TV broadcast treatment on the CBC in 1969. Eventually that broadcast made it onto DVD and I reviewed it about four years ago. The COC is now reviving it for Canada’s 150th in a new production by Peter Hinton, a director noted for his stage work with native artists and native themes. Yesterday I spent an hour at the COC watching a working rehearsal of one of the scenes and this morning I took another look at the DVD.
I had hoped to be able to offer some real insights into what one might expect to see when this production opens on April 20th but, to be perfectly honest, the deeper I dig the less certain I become about anything to do with it. I know that Hinton and the COC are taking enormous pains to recreate the work in a way that’s sensitive to 2017 and the different way that, we hope or aspire to, treat Canada’s original peoples (some of us do anyway). But what a challenge it seems to be. Let me try and explore some themes though you will find few conclusions.
Last night I braved the storm to catch an intriguingly curated show at Trinity St. Paul’s. Talisker Players’ Spirit Dreaming was a selection of music in which “western” composers explore the ideas of colonized peoples through the medium of vocal chamber music. The music was interspersed with readings from creation myths from around the world. It was very interesting to see how changing ideas of “cultural appropriation” and different cultural contexts; French and British colonies, Brazil, northern Finland, influenced works which range in time from the 1920s to the 2010s.
So I got my hands on the DVD documentary about Rufus Wainwright and the genesis of Prima Donna. There’s not all that much of the music on the disk but there’s enough to get a general impression. There’s also plenty of material for helping one judge where Wainwright is coming from and how he might approach a second opera.
“The god-damn son of a bitch is dead”. So says one of John A. Macdonald’s henchmen on checking his watch to see that the scheduled time of Louis Riel’s execution has passed; at least in Harry Somers’ 1969 operatic version of the story. Louis Riel, on the face of it is a historic narrative about the leader of the 1869 and 1885 Métis opposition to the expansion of the Dominion of Canada. But it’s deeper than that. It’s a complex work dealing with fundamental questions of identity and belonging and of the relation between people and state. Written during a weird combination of the orgy of cultural nationalism that greeted the centenary of Confederation and Canada’s most turbulent political violence it transcends the Canadianness of its story and clear parallels could be found in many countries, including Canada, today. This is really about “culture wars” in all their complexity and horror.