On April 19, 2017, the Canadian Opera Company is hosting a closed meeting at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, organized by Dr. Dylan Robinson of Queen’s University, to discuss First Nations song protocol and the use of Indigenous songs in Canadian compositions, such as Harry Somers’ Louis Riel.
Those who have been invited to the April 19 gathering are members of the Nisg̱a’a, Métis and other First Nations arts and music communities, members of the 2017 Louis Riel production, representatives from the Canadian Opera Company, National Arts Centre, Canadian Music Centre, and Canada Council for the Arts, as well as advisors and executors to the estates of Louis Riel’s composer Harry Somers and librettist Mavor Moore.
“One intention of the gathering is to begin the process of developing policy related to Indigenous protocol for new music involving Indigenous participants, and music that misuses Indigenous song,” says Dr. Dylan Robinson, Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts. “This work of creative repatriation is essential in the ongoing process of reconciliation.”
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 COC is in a unique position to use its presentation of Louis Riel to discuss the issues arising from a longer history of colonialization and appropriation,” says COC General Director Alexander Neef. “These are complicated issues and we hope it leads to a future that takes into consideration the aesthetic, spiritual, cultural and educational ways forward.”
The “Song of Skateen” is one of hundreds of First Nations songs collected by ethnographers during the early 20th century, shared with the understanding that it was to keep them safe for future generations. Many agreed to have their songs recorded believing that the Indian Act’s censorship of performing their songs and dances would result in their eventual loss, unaware that these materials may one day be used in contemporary compositions without their consent. 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.
“Given that this particular song was made available through ethnographic recording/transcription currently held within a museum collection, it is also our hope that we may think about new possibilities and creative projects for music organizations to support the work of reconnecting Indigenous songs with Indigenous artists,” adds Robinson.
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 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 COC’s opening night performance of Louis Riel on April 20 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.
The purpose of the April 19 consultation event is not to reach a conclusive decision, but to open a dialogue between relevant parties and organizations that will clarify these issues in the future.
Professor Dylan Robinson is a scholar of Stó:lō descent who holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts at Queen’s University, located on the traditional lands of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples. His research has been supported by national and international fellowships at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, in the Canadian Studies Program at the University of California Berkeley, the Indigeneity in the Contemporary World project at Royal Holloway University of London, and a Banting Postdoctoral fellowship in the First Nations Studies Program at the University of British Columbia. His most recent book, the edited collection Arts of Engagement (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016) examines the role that the arts and Indigenous cultural practices played in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Indian Residential Schools. His forthcoming book, Hungry Listening, focuses on collaboration between Indigenous performers, composers and artists and classical music ensembles.
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By Claudine Domingue, Director of Public Relations
During the summer of 2016, the COC’s Director of Public Relations, Claudine Domingue, spoke with singers and creative team members who were part of the original 1967 production of Louis Riel. Sadly, Bernard Turgeon, who originated the role of Louis Riel, passed away in October 2016, just a few short months after this interview took place. We are grateful that his memories of this iconic Canadian work, along with those of the rest of these great artists, have been preserved and are now being shared with a new generation of Louis Riel audiences.
There’s no question that the world premiere of Louis Riel in 1967 was a seminal moment in the COC’s storied history. But, after speaking with several of the original collaborators, it became quickly apparent that the production was equally momentous in the lives of the artists who created it. Fifty years after its first performance, these artists speak about it as if it happened just yesterday, with all the joy, apprehension and excitement they must have experienced then.
“I think the whole thing; the fact that it was a new work—a Canadian work—with Canadian composer, librettist, conductor and director, and all the Canadian singers, made it really special,” says Leon Major, the original production’s director. Conductor Victor Feldbrill concurs. “To be involved with the very first important Canadian opera was a tremendous responsibility, and a great challenge.” Major and Feldbrill were brought on early to the project while composer Harry Somers and librettist Mavor Moore were still working on the opera.
“It was quite an accomplishment, and such a team effort,” says Feldbrill. “Leon, me, Murray Laufer and Marie Day—we were there every moment of the composition as Harry was composing. We got to know the work as it was being created.”
All of them speak about the care they took to tell the tale as responsibly as possible. Major says that the entire team worked for over a year on the project. “The research that Murray, Marie, Bernard and I did was extraordinary. We wanted to make sure it was accurate, and we didn’t want to short-change anyone.”
Costume designer Marie Day, who, along with her husband set designer Murray Laufer, created the look of the opera, calls the months spent researching Riel’s life and times “an amazing adventure.” They wanted the show to be historically pertinent. “History made Riel out to be a kind of shabby half-breed who probably never had a bath, but we wanted to get him right. It mattered so much to us.” In the spirit of accuracy Day went so far as giving Turgeon an actual buffalo coat that he wore throughout rehearsals. It was “incredibly hot and heavy and smelly—and he wore it all the time—I don’t know how he did it,” says Day.
Wearing a real buffalo coat throughout rehearsals was just one of the ways baritone Bernard Turgeon threw himself into the title role. When he found out he’d been given the part, Turgeon picked up and moved to Saint Boniface, Manitoba for almost two years. There he absorbed Riel’s world—the people, the environment, the history—as thoroughly as he could before coming back to Toronto to rehearse.
As Major says, “Bernard made that role. He took Louis Riel into his own body. In rehearsal, when I’d go to talk to him, I was talking to Riel, not Bernard.” Roxolana Roslak, who sang the role of Marguerite, Riel’s young wife, agrees, “He was so possessed, in the most positive sense, by the character that it was incredible to watch.” And Feldbrill adds, “Bernard was Louis Riel from day one.”
For his part, Turgeon admitted “it was the greatest, most difficult experience of my life.” But, ever humble, he gave his castmate the kudos, “I thought Roxy’s aria [the unaccompanied lullaby, ‘Kuyas’] was the highlight of the evening.”
Roslak herself notes that, apart from the technical difficulty of the music, Somers perfectly positioned the lullaby at the beginning of Act III to allow for the greatest impact. “After two acts featuring very tumultuous music and mostly male voices, it was such a beautiful change of pace. Out of the darkness and quiet there’s just… sound.” The lullaby starts as description of the hunt then transitions into a soothing lullaby as Marguerite rocks her infant son to sleep, and by the end is “almost a cry from the heart. Harry was like that; he put the work in the notes and let you discover it yourself.”
To a person, all agree that a new COC production is cause for celebration, even if some may have had some initial misgivings. Day admits, “at first, I didn’t want anyone to touch what we did. But now I’m really excited, because we have a whole new generation looking at the story!”
As Leon Major enthuses, “I’m just thrilled the COC is doing a new production. It would be a calamity if you tried to do a similar version, or to copy what we did. It was 50 years ago. It would be madness. It would be a throwback. No, no, it has to be now.”
This article originally appeared in the COC’s Fall 2016 Program.
Photo credits (top - bottom): A scene from Louis Riel (COC, 1975); (l-r) Donald Saunders, Bernard Turgeon, John Arab, and Peter Milne in Louis Riel (COC, 1975); Roxolana Roslak in Louis Riel (COC, 1975). Photos by Robert Ragsdale.
In conjunction with the our new production of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel, FREE events are taking place in Toronto throughout the month of April, allowing the general public to discover this uniquely Canadian contribution to the opera world, as well as the Métis history and cultural traditions that inspired the operatic tale of the Métis leader and Canada’s westward expansion.
On April 13, from 12 – 1 p.m., the V'ni Dansi's Louis Riel Métis Dancers bring the rhythms and images of the Métis spirit alive through traditional and contemporary styles of Métis dance and music. The Vancouver-based company is dedicated to sharing the dances, stories and culture of the Métis and, on April 13, performs in the Free Concert Series for the first time in celebration of the Métis people.
On April 20, the Métis Fiddler Quartet comes to the Free Concert Series from 12 – 1 p.m., presenting a musical voyage that travels the trade routes of the Northwestern frontier. Born in Winnipeg, the four Delbaere-Sawchuk siblings: Alyssa, Conlin, Nicholas and Danton, of the Métis Fiddler Quartet, perform Métis fiddle music passed down by their elders, while drawing on their diverse backgrounds in classical music, jazz and beyond. On April 20, audience members are encouraged to clap, jig and sing along with this award-winning group and discover the history of the Métis people in Canada through fiddle tunes and songs.
On April 12, the COC hosts Rebel Without a Chance: Louis Riel at the Toronto Public Library – Don Mills location (888 Lawrence Ave. E.) as part of our Opera Talks series. In this free and interactive session, Opera Canada editor Wayne Gooding offers a multi-media exploration of the theme of opera and revolution by examining how the opera Louis Riel tells the story of this important historical figure. Rebel Without a Chance: Louis Riel takes places at 7 p.m. No advance registration is required. For more information, please visit www.coc.ca/OperaTalks.
On April 13, the COC's Youth Opera Lab series explores the traditional music of the Métis people in a workshop led by musician and educator Conlin Delbaere-Sawchuk of the Métis Fiddler Quartet. This free workshop for teens and young adults ages 16 to 24 takes place from 5 – 9:30 p.m. at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen St. W.) and includes the opportunity to observe an on-stage rehearsal of Louis Riel. Youth Opera Lab spaces are free but advance application is required to secure one of the 25 spots available. Applications are available at www.coc.ca/YOL and are being accepted until April 5, 2017.
On April 21, the free, day-long symposium Hearing Riel explores the complex biographical, historical and political terrain of Harry Somers' landmark Canadian opera. Symposium presenters include Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of Canada; John Ralston Saul, author of A Fair Country; Métis activist and lawyer Jean Teillet, grandniece of Louis Riel; Adam Gaudry, Métis Assistant Professor, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta; and Peter Hinton, director of our production of Louis Riel. This special, one-day-only event is presented by the COC in partnership with the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music and the Humanities Initiative of the Munk School of Global Affairs. The symposium runs from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. at Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex Ave., St. George Campus, University of Toronto.) Admission is free and tickets can be reserved in advance as of April 4 by visiting www.coc.ca/HearingRiel or by calling the Box Office at 416-363-8231. There is a limit of one ticket per person.
Louis Riel is onstage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts from April 20 to May 13. For more information and to purchase tickets, please click here.
Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001