Parlando: The COC Blog


Honouring Indigeneity in Louis Riel

By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager


It was just one year ago that Louis Riel’s portrait was finally hung alongside those of Manitoba’s other premiers in the halls of Winnipeg’s Legislative Buildings. Although never premier, as President of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia he helped pave the way for Manitoba to enter Confederation—ironic given his subsequent execution for treason by the same Ottawa government determined to unite Canada at any cost. Manitoba’s small but significant acknowledgement of Riel’s key role was long overdue, but is the type of historical realignment that also informs director Peter Hinton’s new COC production of Louis Riel.

Like any form of artistic production, Louis Riel is an historical artifact, influenced by the perspectives of its authors, in this case two white men (composer Harry Somers and librettist Mavor Moore), and by its time period, those heady days of Centennial celebration in 1967, and as such, carries a certain degree of cultural baggage. Hinton’s production does not apologize for that, nor does it propose to be the definitive telling of Riel’s story. In comparison with the COC’s original 1967 staging, this 2017 rendition will represent a very carefully considered effort to “de-emphasize colonial biases [inherent in the piece] as much as we can”. To that end, Hinton has secured the involvement of a remarkable group of Métis and First Nations artists who will lend their perspective to Somers’ and Moore’s interpretation of history, retaining the integrity of the original piece but also bringing it into contemporary, inclusive practice.


When the opera begins, Cole Alvis, former executive director of the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance, will greet audiences with a territorial land acknowledgement and introduction that places the opera in a contemporary context. As The Activist, he will also be a member of the Land Assembly, the chorus of Indigenous women and men who silently challenge and retaliate, standing for the people and groups fighting for representation by Riel. The first music to be heard, the Folksinger’s unaccompanied song “Riel sits in his chamber o’ state”, will be sung by Métis performer Jani Lauzon in a contemporary non-operatic style—just one of the ways Hinton’s production introduces other cultural perspectives to an art form so steeped in its Western European roots. Other Métis and Indigenous performers include the young soprano Joanna Burt as Riel’s sister, Sara, bass-baritone Everett Morrison as Wandering Spirit, and celebrated dancer Justin Many Fingers (Mii-sum-ma-nis-kim) as Buffalo Dancer.

Hinton is adamant that his staging honour the opera’s iconic status while still leaving room to correct the historical inaccuracies and cultural insensitivities inherent in a piece conceived 50 years ago in a very different social/historical context. For example, according to the opera’s version of history, three men visit Riel in Montana and encourage his return to Manitoba to lead the Métis cause: Métis leader, Gabriel Dumont; Cree chief Poundmaker; and James Isbister, the lone Anglo-Métis delegate. In actual fact, a fourth man was part of the group, the European settler Louis Schmidt who has been re-included in this production. He will sing lines originally given to Poundmaker, allowing for a more nuanced, culturally sensitive portrayal of the great chief by Cree actor Billy Merasty.

One of the main challenges of re-staging Louis Riel is dealing with its complex conflation of languages. As Hinton points out, language itself defines much of the opera’s main content. Characters manipulate each other simply by speaking in a language the other cannot understand (for example French versus English) in order to make their political points. The original libretto was in English, French and Cree but for the first time with this production, Michif, the official Métis language colonized out of practice but now experiencing a revival, will form part of the sung and spoken text, in addition to being projected on stage alongside a new Cree translation.

From the earliest stages of his production’s development, Hinton has recognized that if the opera were written today “there would be more Indigenous participation and involvement in its creation and its expression.” While no staging can be definitive, Hinton’s aim has been to question suppositions the opera makes about the historical Riel; to provide a thoughtful, multi-faceted examination of what it commemorates; to question why we need to keep re-telling our history; and, to offer some perspective on what that history might mean today. Most importantly, it will give voice to Métis and First Nations perspectives that have not been brought to bear on this opera before and as such, contribute to Canada’s ongoing efforts to reach meaningful reconciliation with its Indigenous peoples.

Louis Riel is onstage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until May 13, 2017. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Photo credits (top - bottom): Scenes from Louis Riel ​(COC, 2012), photos by Michael Cooper.

Posted by COC Staff / in Louis Riel / comments (0) / permalink


Keri-Lynn Wilson: A Passion for Puccini

By Kristin McKinnon, Publicist and Publications Co-ordinator 

Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson has impressed audiences and critics alike with her nuanced and expressive performances while leading some of the most prestigious orchestras around the world. This spring she comes home to make her Canadian Opera Company debut conducting Puccini’s Tosca. With such success, it’s hard to believe that an international conducting career was not always part of her plans.

Growing up in Winnipeg, Wilson knew her future career would involve music. You could say it is in her blood. “I grew up in this very musical family,” she says. “My grandmother taught me piano and my father (conductor, educator and violinist Carlisle Wilson) taught me violin.” She was also an accomplished flautist, playing in the Winnipeg Youth Orchestra which her father conducted. “Playing in the orchestra was the most memorable part of my childhood. I lived for the weekly Saturday afternoon youth orchestra rehearsals.” These experiences sparked an early fascination with conducting. “I knew at some point that I wanted to conduct but I didn’t know how seriously I would actually pursue it,” says Wilson. “I would have never imagined that I would have ended up having the career I have.”

She went on to study at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, pursuing both a master’s and a bachelor’s degree in flute, with the intention of becoming a professional orchestral musician. But in her final year, she hit a crossroads. “I became bored with flute,” she recalls. “I was taking all sorts of other courses, like conducting courses and various opera courses… I wanted to broaden my horizons in every way.” It was after observing one of these conducting classes that she came to a sudden realization. “Somebody said to me, ‘Are you intending on taking the audition at Juilliard for conducting?’ And I said ‘Oh, no, no, no. I’m just fascinated with watching the conducting.’ When I walked home that night through Central Park, I thought ‘Why don’t I take the conducting audition?’ So I made the overnight decision (to audition).” It was a choice that changed her life.

After undergoing a grueling audition process, where the inexperienced Wilson had less than six months to prepare challenging repertoire, including The Rite of Spring, for her colleagues in the Juilliard orchestra, she was accepted into the conducting program. She studied under German-American conductor Otto-Werner Mueller, who became a major formative influence. Like Wilson, Mueller’s early career started in Canada where he was a pianist, composer, arranger, and conductor for CBC. He then moved to the United States, joining the faculties of Juilliard, the Yale School of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music over the course of his career, and became one of the country’s most eminent educators and conductors. “He was from the German school and had a very thorough way of teaching orchestral repertoire,” says Wilson, and he had way with teaching young conductors.

Another important mentor was Claudio Abbado, one of the most celebrated conductors of the 20th century. During her time off from Juilliard, he allowed Ms. Wilson to watch his rehearsals with the Berlin and Vienna philharmonic orchestras and she even assisted him at the Salzburg Festival one summer. “He was a huge influence because he represented the spontaneous and fantastic, yet emotional, approach to conducting. The artistry of Claudio Abbado is an inspiration.” He contrasted with Mueller’s more analytical approach but their dual influence proved to be a “perfect complement” for Wilson as she embarked on her own professional career.

After graduating from Juilliard, Wilson spent four years at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Initially a purely symphonic conductor, she leapt at the chance to “enter the lion’s den” and conduct her first opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, in Verona. The resulting success opened doors to companies across Italy and she established herself as a specialist in Italian opera early in her career. These days, her repertoire has become more varied. She has a special passion for Russian music and a desire to conduct more Wagner, and she performs with symphonies and opera companies around the world, including recent appearances with the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theatres, English National Opera and Bayerische Staatsoper. While she prefers to keep a “perfectly balanced season” of symphonic and operatic music, she enjoys the intellectual challenge of conducting opera. “Symphonic is pure music… however, opera is embracing of so much–the music, the story, the passion, the libretto, the history... I love that.”

The COC’s Tosca marks a return to Wilson’s conducting roots. It was the first Puccini opera she ever conducted and despite revisiting it many times since—including at the “magical” Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago where she received Puccini’s granddaughter’s seal of approval—it continues to captivate her. “It’s always fresh to come back to because I love it so much for its passion, its dramatic energy, its power, its beauty and its intensity.” Audiences around the world agree, with Tosca continuing to be one of the most performed works in the operatic canon since its premiere in 1900. “I’ve performed Puccini all over the world and it’s never any different – audiences just love Puccini,” says Ms. Wilson. “It connects immediately to your emotional being. It gives anyone shivers… It’s just so fantastic.”

Her passion and respect for the music comes through when she’s at the podium. “When I conduct Tosca, I feel it through my entire body. It’s so easy to communicate because I really feel it. It’s an incredible emotional journey.” She finds Act II particularly moving and a testament to Puccini’s perfection. “It’s the most thrilling to conduct because it feels like you’re becoming Scarpia or becoming Tosca. Right from the beginning, it is one big dramatic force of passionate beauty and intensity.”

Wilson has travelled the world as a sought-after maestra and has conducted Tosca numerous times, but with a fresh cast and production, the experience is always new. She’s particularly looking forward to the COC’s cast, most of whom she’s never worked with before. “It’s fantastic seeing how one Tosca is different from the next… It’s a journey, a discovery.” And returning to the country of her birth, where she maintains close ties and got her musical start, gives her COC debut added meaning. “When I’m in Europe, I proudly say I’m Canadian,” she says. “I’m really excited to come back.”

Keri-Lynn Wilson is generously sponsored by Robert Sherrin.

See Keri-Lynn Wilson conduct our production of Puccini's Tosca from April 30 to May 20, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

Photo credits (top - bottom): Keri-Lynn Wilson, photos by Daria Stravs Tisu and E. Moreno Esquibel 

Posted by COC Staff / in Tosca / comments (0) / permalink


See the Ensemble Studio for FREE this spring!

16/17 Ensemble Studio

Is there a better time of year than spring to experience the freshest voices and brightest rising stars of Canadian opera? This April and May, there are plenty of opportunities to hear the young artists of the COC Ensemble Studio in performance, as well as one of its notable graduates, as part of the Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

April 18, 2017

Toronto-based Collectìf, co-founded by Ensemble Studio soprano Danika Lorèn, is dedicated to exploring and expanding the world of art song performance by presenting innovative, song-based theatre. In a newly-compiled pastiche, entitled Fête, Collectìf presents staged vignettes of art song based on Verlaine’s iconic poetry cycle, Fêtes galantes.

April 25, 2017

A Woman's Life and Love

COC Ensemble Studio artists, mezzo-soprano Lauren Eberwein and soprano Danika Lorèn, explore themes of life, love and sensuality from a woman’s perspective in a program that includes Schumann’s beloved Frauenliebe und –leben. They are accompanied by pianists Stéphane Mayer and Hyejin Kwon.

April 27, 2017


In this annual tradition, singers from the young artist programs of the Canadian Opera Company and l’Opéra de Montréal join forces in a program of arias and ensembles.

May 9, 2017

Women on the Edge

Canadian mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy (Julie Riel in the COC’s Louis Riel), and graduate of the COC Ensemble Studio, teams up with pianist Rachel Andrist in a concert about women “on the edge.” The program includes Schumann’s Poèmes de la reine Marie d’Ecosse, and Zemlinsky’s Six Songs after Poems by Maeterlinck.

May 10, 2017


COC Ensemble Studio tenor Aaron Sheppard, accompanied by pianist Stéphane Mayer, reflects on the brevity of life in Finzi’s A Young Man’s Exhortation, based on the poetry of Thomas Hardy. The concert also features performances by soprano Samantha Pickett and mezzo-soprano Megan Quick.

May 11, 2017

Bach Cantatas

COC Ensemble Studio mezzo-soprano Lauren Eberwein joins members of the COC Orchestra and pianist Hyejin Kwon in a special program featuring two of J.S. Bach’s best-loved cantatas: Ich habe genug, BWV 82, and Vergnügte Ruh, BWV 170.

May 17, 2017

Dawn Always Begins in the Bones


Multi-award-winning Canadian composer Ana Sokolović premieres her Canadian Art Song Project-commissioned cycle, Dawn Always Begins in the Bones. She has earned international acclaim for her orchestral, vocal, chamber, operatic and theatrical pieces. COC Ensemble Studio artists, with pianist Liz Upchurch, will perform songs and ensembles based on texts from across Canada, celebrating our country and the richness of its artistic traditions.

May 18, 2017
Les Adieux: Die schöne Müllerin

Tenor Charles Sy and pianist Hyejin Kwon bid farewell to the COC Ensemble Studio in a performance of one of the greatest song cycles ever composed: Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin.

All performances are FREE to the public and begin at 12 p.m., but line up early to make sure you get a seat! Doors open 11:30 a.m. and late admission is not possible. There is capacity for 230 patrons. 

For more information and the complete listings of all 2016/2017 Free Concert Series performances, click here.

Photo credit: Artists of the 2016/2017 Ensemble Studio, photo: Bronwen Sharp

Posted by COC Staff / in Free Concert Series / comments (0) / permalink

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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001



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