Harry Somers’ Louis Riel is the epic presentation of an intensely contentious moment in Canada’s political history dramatizing the story of the Métis leader, Louis Riel, and Canada’s westward expansion, while also being a landmark work in the canon of Canadian opera.
In reviving the opera for 2017, the COC/NAC co-production confronts the traditions and demands of an art form that make Louis Riel a dynamic and compelling opera and its collision with the voice, culture and representation of indigeneity. This production uses historical research and multiple community perspectives to expose the lines between truth and mythology and co-existing perspectives of settler and indigenous stances as Riel’s story is told and retold.
“The challenges are many and well worth the undertaking. We’re looking at this opera from a more inclusive perspective,” says Louis Riel director Peter Hinton. “We’re not changing the intentions of the piece, but revisions are being made that honour the virtuosic complexity of the music, while allowing for the introduction of voices that have not been heard before.”
Louis Riel distinguishes itself from other operas with its musical diversity. In addition to incorporating original folk music and traditional melody lines, Somers wrote in an abstract atonal orchestral style which heightens the dramatic intensity and sets the orchestra entirely apart from the singing. Electronic music also comes into play, creating at times an auditory surrealism that mirrors the distortion and confusion of events unfolding in the narrative.
Louis Riel demands singers to demonstrate a range of vocal techniques and dramatic intonation, sometimes in harmony with the orchestra and sometimes in conflict, and other times delivering gripping musical lines with the voice completely laid bare to scrutiny and unsupported by the orchestra. An orchestra of 67 musicians, including strings, woodwinds, brass, piano, and large percussion ensemble requiring six players, accompanies the cast and chorus.
Unique to the score of Louis Riel is 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 and transcribed by Sir Ernest MacMillan on the Nass River in 1927. The words for “Kuyas” were selected by Somers from Cree Grammar by Rev. H. E. Hivers and the English-Cree Primer and Vocabulary by Rev. F. G. Stevens, as well as from a story told by Coming Day to Leonard Bloomfield on the Sweetgrass Reserve in Saskatchewan. The composer was further assisted in ascertaining pronunciation and feeling for the language by Mrs. Lou Waller of Cree descent from Alberta, to whom Somers dedicated the “Kuyas” aria. 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 COC and NAC’s 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.
For the 2017 production, Louis Riel will continue to be sung in English, French and Cree, however, it will now feature a new translation of the Cree and include spoken dialogue in Michif, the official language of the Métis that would have been spoken in the 19th century, in select scenes between Métis characters. The new Cree translation is by Manitoba-born actor and writer Billy Merasty, who is of Cree descent, and the Métis dialogue is translated by Norman Fleury, a Métis elder, Michif language expert and translator, professor, and historian. The 2017 production of Louis Riel will also feature English, French, Cree and Michif SURTITLESTM.
The role of the chorus in Louis Riel has also been redesigned. The original opera called for a single large chorus to act and sing a variety of groups and assemblies in the narrative. For the 2017 revival, there will be two choruses performing in contrast to the historical figures represented by the principal cast, representing the modern dynamic of debate and protest that continue of this history, both in the houses of parliament and on the land.
The COC Chorus takes on the role of the Parliamentary Chorus and represents a group of settler and immigrant men and women. The Parliamentary Chorus sings and is seen but does not participate in the physical action of the narrative, only commenting and debating on what should take place. They serve as a modern-day Greek Chorus while also representing the functions of Members of Parliament who legislate and validate the struggles of all Canadians in Ottawa. Additional members of the COC Chorus will be members of the Métis Nation.
A group of Indigenous men and women will be cast as the physical chorus known as the Land Assembly. On stage throughout the opera, the Land Assembly is a silent chorus in protest, and stands for the people for whom the opera has not provided a voice. The Land Assembly shift and transform in response to the actions on stage and are a constant, physical representation of the Indigenous men and women who are directly affected by the outcomes, victories and losses of Riel. The players in the Land Assembly will be announced at a later date as part of the COC’s complete casting release for Louis Riel.
New characters have been introduced to bring Indigenous voices into the opera as well as present a more informed history of the Métis and Indigenous peoples in Riel’s history. The previously unattributed opening vocal line is now delivered by a character known as The Folksinger, to be sung by a contemporary Métis singer. The role of The Activist, to be played by a Métis actor, will deliver the Land Acknowledgement as the opera unfolds, setting the tone for interpreting the action playing out on stage. The artists in these roles will be announced at a later date as part of the COC’s complete casting release for Louis Riel.
Louis Riel is onstage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts from April 20 to May 13, 2017. For more information or to purchase tickets, please click here.
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Near and far, the force of opera is global. Here is the next instalment in our blog series which explores the moments when normal people became opera lovers.
It was 1951 and I was 18 years old. As part of the Festival of Britain celebrations, Kirsten Flagstad sang Isolde in Liverpool. It was only two performances and I booked tickets for both. What I did not know was that these were to be her final two performances of that role. I can still hardly believe my good fortune.
Above: a recording of Kirsten Flagstad singing "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde in a 1936 performance at Covent Garden with the London Philharmonic Orchestra led by Fritz Reiner.
It was 1967 and I was a 19 year-old university student in Paris for the summer, feeling like I was discovering the world for the first time. Don Carlos was playing at the Palais Garnier and I bought the cheapest ticket for a seat up in the rafters. Walking into that beautiful building took my breath away, but not nearly as much as Nicolai Ghiaurov in the role of Philip. At the end of the performance, I walked home in a state of ecstasy. A few months later, back home in Montreal, my dad managed to get me a ticket to Nabucco, again with Ghiaurov. More magic! Since that summer, I have been to many wonderful performances in various opera houses around the world, but nothing has equaled that night in Paris. To this day, Don Carlos remains my favourite opera and listening to Ghiaurov still excites me beyond measure.
Above: a recording of Nicolai Ghiaurov and Plácido Domingo in a 1983 production of Verdi's Don Carlos by The Metropolitan Opera.
As I grew up with parents who loved opera, answering the question about an opera that changed my life is a bit of a challenge, as I would say opera as an art form itself has changed my life. I cannot remember a time when we didn't listen to the CBC opera broadcasts on Saturdays and most of my parent's record collection were operas. The television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood had a regular guest opera singer that also captured my imagination.
The first opera that I saw live was a production of the Tales of Hoffmann in 1971. We drove from Fredericton to see it in Saint John, New Brunswick. I was seven years old and the theatrical effects were like magic. The image of the portrait of Antonia's mother coming to life and singing is something that I will never forget. I was so enthralled that I insisted on sitting on my mother's lap for the last act because I did not want to fall asleep.
One of my other favourite opera memories was seeing a production of Rigoletto at the ancient arena in Verona, Italy in July of 1981. The historic setting, a full moon, live dogs, the audience holding birthday candles to celebrate Verdi, Sherrill Milnes singing live and not just on a record, all contributed to my lifelong love of opera. As a result I have been going to the COC ever since I moved to Toronto.
Above: Ekaterina Sadovnikova and Quinn Kelsey in Rigoletto (COC, 2011), photo by Michael Cooper.
Posted by Tanner Davies / in TOTCML / comments (0) / permalink
Being a true opera lover is a commitment, however, once you catch the bug, resistance is futile. Here is the latest edition to our blog series which explores life-changing moments when opera lovers were born.
Pietro Antoni De Vita
Visiting the Lyric Opera of Chicago when just a kid of 20 (my first solo trip anywhere), I was as excited as can be over the prospect of seeing and hearing my first Faust with none other than three of the greatest singers of the time: Mirella Freni, Alfredo Kraus, and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Knowing the score well, I was in utter anticipation of what was to come and could barely contain myself. I literally was a bundle of nerves as if I were the one to be performing. With the rise of the baton, one of the greatest operatic evenings of my life unfolded—all three major singers in splendid voice. The production was a gorgeous, rich, traditional staging of those beloved years. I was in rapture as we approached the first break (a very long two hours.) I thought I would literally melt away as Faust and Marguérite began their rapturous hymn of love. It was all ethereal, like an out of body experience. Nothing disappointed me as I awaited the final trio which sent me over the top. And, one of the most gratifying gifts of the evening was the meeting of Mirella, Alfredo, and Nikolai. Mirella and I formed a connection which lasted well past her performances of Fedora at the Metropolitan Opera and [Washington] DC Opera, where I had a private audience with her not too long before she retired. Those, indeed, were the days!
Above: a recording of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's 1980 production of Faust by Charles Gounod.
I saw my first opera in December, 1969 and it was at the Palais Garnier—the old opera house in Paris. I hated it. I thought it was clumsily staged and just too melodramatic for my taste. As a young man classical music was my music of choice, but I felt opera was not for me. I was on a winter-time trip to Europe and the woman I was traveling with was a pianist and an opera lover, so I was going along happily. After all, it was Paris, then Milan, Munich, Vienna and Budapest. So I felt I would just have to put up with opera even if I didn't care for it. Well, the next one was at La Scala—Don Carlo, with [Claudio] Abbado conducting, [Nicolai] Ghiaurov as Philip, [Rita Orlandi] Malaspina as Elisabeth, [Sherley] Verrett as Eboli, [Martti] Talvela as the Inquisitor, [Piero] Cappuccilli as Posa, and [Plácido] Domingo as Carlo. It knocked my socks off. I was completely enthralled.
Then it was [Birgit] Nilsson as Turandot in Munich, Lisa Della Casa in Arabella, Erich Kunz as Papageno in Vienna, Gundula Janowitz, Walter Berry and James King in Fidelio in Vienna. There were a few clunkers along the way: a really boring Macbeth, a less than awesome [Die Walküre] in Budapest. But I was hooked. Other trips to Europe, some great productions, some not so much.
Coming to Canada I was lucky enough to have the type of career enabling me to be involved with opera. Here in Canada and in the United States, I have had the opportunity to experience the wonderful, risky world of opera and to see and hear some truly memorable productions. That first trip, and that encounter with that cast of Don Carlo, was instrumental in installing a love for and commitment to opera.
Above: Plácido Domingo and Rita Orlandi Malaspina in La Scala's 1969 production of Verdi's Don Carlo, photo by Erio Piccagliani.
Banner photo: David Pomeroy and Ana Ibarra in Faust (COC, 2007), photo by Michael Cooper
Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001