The Louis Riel Opera to Make Ottawa Premiere at the National Arts Centre June 15
May 18, 2017
My people will sleep for 100 years, and when they wake, it will be the artists who give them back their souls. —Louis Riel, 1885
OTTAWA --Fresh from a triumphant seven-day run at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the Canadian Opera Company (COC)’s Louis Riel makes its Ottawa premiere opening the National Arts Centre’s Canada Scene festival, running from June 15-July 23, with performances in Southam Hall on June 15 and June 17, 2017. The National Arts Centre is thrilled to co-produce Louis Riel with the COC as part of the Mark Motors Audi Signature Series. The Ottawa production also features the National Arts Centre Orchestra, the Ottawa chamber choir The Ewashko Singers, and chorus master Laurence Ewashko and local Indigenous community members from the Ottawa region.
Louis Riel inhabits a richly deserved place in the canon of Canadian opera. Composed by Harry Somers for Canada’s centennial in 1967, with libretto by Mavor Moore, Louis Riel is an epic account of a contentious moment in Canadian history – the story of the enigmatic Métis leader, his vision, and his resistance to the westward expansion of Canada. Under the Direction of Peter Hintonthe COC has brought together an all-Canadian cast for the opera, led by internationally renowned Canadian baritone Russell Braun in the title role.
As the first Canadian opera ever performed by the COC, Louis Riel is very much a product of its time. But even after half a century, Louis Riel remains a work of insight and continuing relevance, bringing a controversial time in our nation’s history out of the darkness and into the light. Fifty years after its 1967 production, the COC now addresses the original’s sins of omission and injustice, adding the long-overlooked and unheard voices of the Métis people, challenging audiences to look again at the story we think we know. “Since First Nations people were omitted from the original work, Hinton has employed two choruses. One, the Parliamentary Chorus, the opera’s original, sits above the action and comments. The new Land Assembly is a silent chorus composed of Métis and First Nations performers who interact with events on the ground,” said Christopher Hoile, in a review of production for Now Magazine (April 25, 2017).This production critically assesses our cultural and artistic past from the perspective of those who have previously gone unheard, with Métis and Indigenous counsel and sensibility touching every aspect of the production.
“Our challenge is taking an artifact from the 1960s and reviving it for today within a contemporary and inclusive practice,” says Peter Hinton.
Chosen for his longstanding involvement with First Nations arts and artistic communities, Hinton brings unique experience and sensitivity to the production. As artistic director of the NAC’s English Theatre from 2005 to 2012, he committed to producing works by Indigenous artists in every season of his tenure there. He is renowned for his culturally sensitive approach to the works of Indigenous artists, having famously directed an Aboriginal adaptation of King Lear with 40 First Nations/Métis actors. He has directed works by Tomson Highway and Métis playwright Marie Clements.
“Louis Riel is one of the great Canadian operas—an epic story about our country,” says Peter Herrndorf the President and CEO of the National Arts Centre. “When Alexander Neef approached us a number of years ago about a partnership, our immediate answer was ‘yes’, and we both knew there probably wasn’t a director in the country who had a better feel for the material than Peter Hinton.”
Hinton, is joined by assistant director Estelle Shook, a Métis artist from BC, who is providing her perspective on the production in order to reclaim the story for today’s Métis people. “Opera has never been the world right next door for us,” said Estelle Shook in an interview with the Toronto Star. “The audience has always been a certain kind of elite,” she continues. “By putting this piece out there, with all of its questions...it is really putting all its cards on the table. It’s the way forward,” she adds.
Hinton and Shook have created a silent chorus not included in the original libretto. This ensemble of Indigenous women and men – the Land Assembly – represents the people who were directly affected by the victories and losses of Métis history, those whose voices were not heard. The Land Assembly silently shifts and transforms as Riel’s story is told, becoming the fire by which Riel has his first vision, the bend in the South Saskatchewan River near where Riel is imprisoned, and a barricade against the Governor General’s arrival. Part of the original libretto, the Parliamentary Chorus is a group of 35 men and women who act as Greek chorus on the one hand, commenting but taking no part in the action, and as the modern members of Parliament in Ottawa who legislate and validate the struggles of all Canadians on the other.
Addressing several issues arising from the original score and libretto, this production of Louis Riel features Indigenous artists in a variety of speaking, acting, and production roles.
Santee Smith makes her COC debut as the choreographer for Louis Riel. One of Canada’s most exciting dance artists, Smith is a member of the Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan from Six Nations of the Grand, and is founding artistic director of and choreographer for Kaha:wi Dance Theatre.
Acclaimed theatre creator Cole Alvis, of Métis-Irish/English heritage, is the leader of the Land Assembly and is also cast in the newly created role of The Activist, delivering the Land Acknowledgement and setting the tone for the action played out on stage. JUNO Award-nominated Jani Lauzon, of Métis heritage, delivers the first line of the opera in the newly created role of The Folksinger. Lauzon also takes on the role of Elzéar Lagimodière, a follower of Riel, as well as a number of other roles. Acclaimed actor and playwright Billy Merasty, of Cree descent, makes his COC debut as the Plains Cree chief Poundmaker.
Making her COC debut, soprano Joanna Burt is a Métis/Saugeen Ojibway artist from Ontario who takes on the role of Louis Riel’s sister Sara Riel. "I really wanted to be a part of this because I feel as an Indigenous woman I could really bring a lot to the production," says Burt in an interview with CBC. "Regardless of whether you're First Nations or Métis or Inuit, this story rings true for everybody because it's a story of broken promises and resistance." Also debuting with the COC is Cree bass-baritone Everett Morrison playing the part of Cree war chief Wandering Spirit, who joined with Louis Riel in the events leading up to 1885. And Justin Many Fingers (Mii-sum-ma-nis-kim), a singer, actor, and dancer from the Lavern Kainai Blackfoot Reserve in Alberta, performs two dance sequences as part of a re-enactment of a Métis buffalo hunt.
The score of Somers’ Louis Riel includes the “Kuyas” aria, which opens Act III and is sung in Cree by the artist in the role of Marguerite Riel, Louis Riel’s wife. The music for the “Kuyas” aria was based on a Nisg̱a’a mourning song called “Song of Skateen” that was recorded by Marius Barbeau and transcribed by Sir Ernest MacMillan on the Nass River in 1927.
The “Song of Skateen”, a Nisg̱a’a mourning song, was used by Harry Somers without knowledge of Nisg̱a’a protocol that dictates that such songs must only be sung at the appropriate times, and only by those who hold the hereditary rights to sing such songs. To sing mourning songs in other contexts is a legal offence for Nisg̱a’a people and can also have negative spiritual impacts upon the lives of singers and listeners.
With respect to both the Nisg̱a’a and Métis peoples and in recognition of how the songs of one nation are not the same as another’s, the NAC and COC co-production of Louis Riel acknowledges the current holder of the hereditary rights to this song: Sim’oogit Sg̱at’iin, hereditary chief Isaac Gonu, Gisḵ’ansnaat (Grizzly Bear Clan), Gitlax̱t’aamiks, B.C.
In recognition of the Nisg̱a’a people and to correct the attribution of “Song of Skateen,” the NAC’s s opening night performance of Louis Riel on June 15 will begin with an oratory and musical address from G̱oothl Ts’imilx Mike Dangeli and Wal’aks Keane Tait of the Nisg̱a’a First Nation with the Git Hayetsk and Kwhlii Gibaygum Nisg̱a’a Dancers, two internationally renowned dance groups from Vancouver, B.C.
Louis Riel continues to be sung in its original English, French, and Cree for the 2017 production, but now features a new translation of the Cree as well as dialogue spoken in Michif, the language of the Métis people and Riel himself. Manitoba-born actor and writer Billy Merasty, of Cree descent, has provided the new Cree translation. Métis dialogue is by Michif language expert and translator Norman Fleury, a Métis elder, professor, and historian. The production features SURTITLES™ in all four languages.
“Perhaps the most considerable challenge in staging this opera is the Eurocentric tradition of opera as a form and its collision with the voice, culture, and representation of indigeneity in this history,” says Hinton. “It is a delicate balance of renewing the original spirit of the opera with contemporary perspectives in order to revise the opera’s colonial biases and bring forward its inherent strength and power.”
Louis Riel plays at the NAC Southam Hall on June 15 and 17. Tickets start at $25 and are available at the NAC Box Office, by phone at 1-888-991-2787 (ARTS) or online at Ticketmaster.ca. For more information, visit nac-cna.ca.
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THE CANADA SCENE FESTIVAL IN THE NATION’S CAPITAL, JUNE 15-JULY 23
CANADA SCENE is a living portrait – a daring, eclectic reflection of contemporary Canadian arts and culture.
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The festival will shine a spotlight on iconic artists who inspire us, dynamic artists who challenge us, and the diverse cultures that bring us together. The Scene festivals began in 2003 with Atlantic Scene. That festival’s success was followed by Alberta Scene (2005), Quebec Scene (2007), BC Scene (2009), Prairie Scene (2011), Northern Scene (2013), and Ontario Scene (2015), and this summer, Canada Scene rounds out the spotlight on the arts and culture and looks towards a nationally-focused festival.
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ABOUT ALEXANDER SHELLEY AND THE NAC ORCHESTRA
In September 2015 Alexander Shelley took up the mantle as Music Director, leading a new era for the National Arts Centre’s Orchestra. Shelley has an unwavering reputation as one of Europe’s leading young conductors, notably as Chief conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra and most recently as the Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Formed in 1969 at the opening of Canada's National Arts Centre, the NAC Orchestra gives over 100 performances a year with renowned artists including Itzhak Perlman, Renée Fleming, James Ehnes, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma. It is noted for the passion and clarity of its performances and recordings, its ground-breaking teaching and outreach programs, and nurturing of Canadian creativity. Since its inception the Orchestra has commissioned 80 works, mostly from Canadian composers. In 2001 it inaugurated the National Arts Centre Awards for Canadian Composers and the recipients thus far have been Denys Bouliane, John Estacio, Peter Paul Koprowski, Gary Kulesha, Alexina Louie and Ana Sokolović.
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