Canada Scene: Becoming Louis Riel has been a journey of understanding for Russell Braun

Russell Braun as Louis Riel in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel. Photo: Sophie I'Anson

This may be the first time Russell Braun has sung the role of Louis Riel, but he has more of a connection to the seminal Canadian opera than one might assume.

“One of my father’s best friends, Cornelis Opthof, was the first to sing John A. Macdonald. And my first voice teacher Roxolana Roslak was first to play Riel’s wife Marguerite.”

Braun didn’t grow up in Canada. He spent much of his youth in Germany where his father, Victor, a talented baritone in his own right, was working. As such he didn’t know of Riel’s story.

He’s not alone. Many Canadians educated in the 1960s and ’70s were not taught the story of the Metis leader who tried to protect his people during Canada’s westward expansion and was eventually hanged for his efforts.

“I didn’t grow up in Canada. I wasn’t exposed to the Riel story, and … I did two years of high school in Canada after we moved back. There was no talk of Riel or anything like that at that point either,” Braun said. The baritone is one of Canada’s best-known and accomplished opera singers, is performing the lead role in the opera.

The story of Louis Riel then was “for me a powerful realization,” he said in an interview with ARTSFILE. “I didn’t know this until I was preparing for the role. … A lot of the libretto (by Mavor Moore) was actually Riel’s own words. He wrote a lot. He corresponded a lot.”

Riel also wrote poetry and that struck Braun.

“There is one instance in the opera. The first vision — that’s how they are referred to in this opera as his visions — was taken from a poem that Riel wrote and sent to Macdonald. The poem says so much about his perspective. He knew what he was after was essential.”

In many ways, Braun says, the jury is still deliberating on Louis Riel and his place in Canadian history. His dream for his people the Metis and for other Indigenous peoples remains unfulfilled.

“For me, moving from Germany to Canada, was an interesting experience. All my life growing up in Germany I was the Canadian boy. My education in Germany, in terms of history, filled us with an historical understanding of the Second World War and Germany’s atrocities and all of that. Atonement was being done through education.

“I moved to Canada and I thought it was this storybook fairyland and then I found out about (the October) crisis in Montreal. And I had no idea about residential schools, about land claims and any of that. In a sense it was a gift. I didn’t take Canada for granted. I really became fascinated with my country much as an immigrant might.”

The opera itself is laden with the baggage of the evolving Canadian context. It has been revived in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report on the abuses of the residential school system. But Braun does not believe the production is  “a political vehicle (solely). It goes beyond that. It’s such a touching exploration of the human spirit I find.

“Obviously Riel is in the forefront and thankfully, for theatrical purposes, he was psychologically interesting. … The music is not very melodic. It is, in many ways, very old fashioned contemporary music. But it’s not about the music in a way. Much is spoken. … The power of the human voice is at the forefront and what the human voice can do so well is convey meaning through text and this libretto is beautiful. … The taste is beautiful, when it is on your tongue.”

Braun had another opportunity to sing Riel. About 15 years ago, he was approached by the director of a Viennese opera house who was thinking about staging Riel in Vienna. He approached Braun over dinner and gave him some scores and CDs to read and listen to. The idea never came to fruition but Braun kept the scores. In fact he used them in preparation for this revival.

“They came in handy.”

That’s a bit of an understatement. The score by Harry Somers is not easy.

“It doesn’t present voices in a way the listener is accustomed to. … I think that is what happened to this production in Toronto.

“For me personally I had to make it my professional obligation to love this music. That is what I do in general but … singing a Mozart role for the first time every page is full of beautiful wonder. Or when you learn Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, each page is even more divine than the previous page. This just doesn’t happen with this opera.”

Riel was hard, even for Braun, who has wrestled with a lot of contemporary music and carries a reputation for doing such work.

“Time and again with this piece I kind of hit a wall. The way it is composed, it is completely micro-managed. Harry Somers was incredibly specific and I kept feeling that he didn’t trust the performers. There is something so liberating, for example when you sing a Bach aria, and there is no dynamic marking, there’s no tempo, sometimes there’s a tempo but all it really says is Make Music.

“But … in the end, it’s the vision that he had and I take what is on the page very seriously.” Now, Braun says, he likes it.

“In a strange sense, once you have learned it and mastered it, it liberates you. You don’t have to search for an interpretation.”

That is a lesson he tries to communicate to his students — that it is important to perform what is on the page.

Braun has been a parttime teacher at the University of Toronto for about 20 years. And he will join Pinchas Zukerman and many other mentors at the NAC’s annual Young Artists Program at the University of Ottawa this month.

“I love teaching. I love working with young people, but I don’t have sense that I am there to “give back” or “pass it on. For me, it’s an extension of wanting to explore. It’s an exploration together.” Teaching for Braun is about giving to students, of course, but it’s also a chance for him to grow as an artist.

“Teaching is research,” he says.

This Canadian Opera Company-National Arts Centre revival of Louis Riel will have two performances in Ottawa (June 15 and 17) and then three in Quebec City. There is the possibility of more in Winnipeg, but no dates have been set.

Should it have more of a life?

“I think modern Canadian opera should be in the rotation without question,” Braun says. “It is starting to be a bit more, notably more in western Canada than in eastern Canada. And I can see that Louis Riel will continue in specialized instances. I don’t think one should wait another 50 years to see it.

“It has a very powerful message. As Canada keeps hopefully dealing in a more inclusive way with indigenous issues, this opera may have a different light shone on it in five years or 10 years. I don’t think it will ever be obsolete.”

When he’s not performing Braun spends a lot of time watching his two sons play baseball. The older one is a left-handed pitcher and a redshirt freshman at an NCAA Division I university near Buffalo, N.Y. His younger son plays on a travelling team in the Toronto area. Interestingly James Westman, the baritone singing the part of Sir John A. Macdonald in this production, has a talented son also playing baseball, Braun says.

“Baseball now informs my understanding of singing and what is required to make the grade. We spend some weekends seeing five baseball games.”

Louis Riel

Where: Southam Hall

When: June 15 and 17 at 8 p.m.

Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.