Mòshkamo: Ian Cusson rocks a new lullaby for Louis Riel opera

Ian Cusson has written a new aria for the opera Louis Riel. Photo: Leemarc Lao

Ian Cusson was the Carrefour composer in residence with the National Arts Centre Orchestra when he was offered a unique commission from NACO and the Canadian Opera Company this past spring. 

The assignment was to write a new aria for the Canadian opera Louis Riel, replacing one that was part of the production created by the composer Harry Somers and the librettist Mavor Moore in 1967.

In a sense, Cusson said in an interview with ARTSFILE, he would be repairing a mistake.

The original aria in the opera is in the form of a lullaby. It’s sung by a young Metis women to her infant, and it opens Act Three of the production. But the music was not Metis. In fact, it’s from a song that is sacred to the Nisga’a people of British Columbia. It is known as the Kuyas aria and its presence in the work, when you think about it, does not fit. Even more, it is offensive to the people from which it was borrowed without permission.

“When I think of Somers and Moore, I don’t think of evil, conspiring people,” Cusson said. “The Canadian government encouraged the use of (what was considered) folk material then.”

In the centennial year, there was a lot of discussion of Canadian identity and character, he said, adding that there was encouragement to use this material that had been gathered by the ethnologist Marius Barbeau in the 1920s. The song is a Nisg̱a’a lament (or lim’ooy̓) and it can only be performed by those with the appropriate hereditary rights to do so. To perform the lament in other contexts breaks Nisg̱a’a law and is said, according to a media release by the Canadian Opera Company and the NAC, to release the song’s spirit, with negative impacts on the lives of singers and listeners.

It was called the Song of Skitene when Sir Ernest MacMillan created a piano arrangement for the piece in 1927 when he was at the Nass River in northern B.C. That is how it entered the repertoire of Canadian music and how it became available to wider use including in the opera Louis Riel. But it should never have happened. 

“My feeling,” Cusson said, “after seeing the opera a couple of times and now having studied the score a bit more, is this is probably the most beautiful moment of the opera.

“So walking into the assignment, I wanted to capture something of the beauty of that moment in setting the text and thinking of the dramatic purpose. The opening of Act Three is the calm before the storm of the story.”

So he spoke with the heirs of Somers and Moore and they “very much felt” that if their ancestors had known all of the context, they would have made a different choice.

In fact, Moore had actually prepared a different text for this lullaby. 

“In the published libretto, there is a French text that was never used,” Cusson said. “Apparently Somers and Moore were discussing this scene and Somers had some difficulty setting the text. 

“He went back to Moore and said he that he had written a piece outside this project that he thought would make a beautiful lullaby.”

For Cusson, the fact that there was another lyric is strikingly ironic.

The song “never really belonged in the opera. If you read the Cree text that Somers had used, it’s kind of a nonsense text that I think he pulled from a Cree grammar book.”

Moore’s French lyric was “gorgeous,” Cusson said. 

“I say all that because that’s actually the text that I set.” 

In a sense, Cusson said, this provides a connection to the original creators of the opera.

“It’s not fully historically accurate, but a forensic historical accuracy isn’t the primary goal of art-making. … There is a faithful element to it.”

Roughly translated, Cusson says, the text has a mother singing to a child saying:

“Sleep, sleep while your mother recalls what she wants for you. She then says she wants her child to have the wings of an eagle and the legs of a deer.  

“Eventually she says ‘I want you to have the heart of man and the wisdom of the stars.’ It is a beautiful text to work with.”

The new aria is called Dodo, mon tout petit and it can live on its own, Cusson said.

“The lullaby has new music. It will be interesting to see how reviewers react. The sound world is certainly not Harry Somers’ sound world.

“I went back and forth wondering: Am I creating a pastiche or a mimic of Somers? I didn’t want to do that. I realized I’m not going to win in this situation. Either I do that and I’ll be criticized as faking Harry Somers or I go the opposite direction and folks might ask what does this have to do with the rest of the opera.

“That is where I come back to wanting to be dramatically faithful and understand what purpose does this scene have in the opera and then trying to create something that could fit there.”

The original Kuyas aria was written for flute and percussion. Cusson’s version does have flute elements that recall the original. And there are grace notes in the soprano solo that also echo Somers.

And he ends the work with a chord that seamlessly transitions into the rest of the opera. “It does fit,” he said.

Unlike Somers, Cusson uses strings, including a harp, a celesta and woodwinds. It is a bigger sound but there is no percussion.

Cusson knew when he agreed to take the commission that this was a sensitive project.

“My (Carrefour) residency started with the Louis Riel performance in Ottawa” which he attended.

It wrapped up this summer. He is now composer in residence with the Canadian Opera Company.

When the COC and the NAC were casting about for a composer to write the new lullaby his name came up. He was approached by Alexander Neef, the the COC’s general director, who was recently hired by the Paris Opera.

“When I accepted, I knew very well that I was stepping a little bit onto a hornet’s nest.” He did get some flak on social media including one post that said “Shame on you.”

Others said that Harry Somers and Mavor Moore would be rolling in their graves.

The saving grace, he said, was that the families of Moore and Somers were on board.

“They wanted this to happen.”

He has also spoke to some people who worked on the original production and they gave their blessing. Some others refused to meet with him however.

“I get that. I get that there are complex feeling especially for those who knew Harry Somers and think that none of his work should be touched.”

But he said he has also taken comfort from the fact that two major cultural institutions have decided this project was important.

In the end, “I said yes to the project, not because I wanted to be part of the Louis Riel thing or to go into some of these controversies. I did it because of what this meant for the return of the song. That was really appealing to me. The work was taken without permission, there was no compensation and no recognition.

“The Nisga’a people who saw the opera said it was actually almost traumatizing to hear that piece of music.

“It’s not about just offending them, it’s also about honouring their protocols. It’s not about being politically correct. It is a sense that this is important and it needs to be respected.”

He says that the fact that he is Metis from the Midland, Ontario, area is “cool” and “symbolically neat to have a person with that cultural connection.”

The piece will be performed in Southam Hall on Sept. 19 as part of an evening of works by Indigenous composers, paired with a performance of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt. The COC will perform a version for piano and voice in December as part of their noon-hour series. He believes the COC will find an opportunity to fit the orchestral version into an upcoming season.

Riel hasn’t been performed all that much since 1967 but if it is ever done again, to mark 200 years of Confederation perhaps, “it will still be Somers’ and Moore’s Louis Riel. It just has this opening to Act Three that’s a little different,” he said. 

The National Arts Centre Orchestra presents an evening of Indigenous composition featuring works by Andrew Balfour, Barbara Croall, Ian Cusson.
Where: Southam Hall
When: Sept. 19 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

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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.