Canada Scene: Reviving Riel puts a seminal Canadian opera back on stage

Russell Braun is seen as Louis Riel (centre) in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company-National Arts Centre production of Louis Riel. Photo: Michael Cooper

The opera Louis Riel was a Centennial gift. It was written by two giants: the composer Harry Somers and the librettist Mavor Moore.

It was commissioned by the Floyd S. Chalmers Foundation in 1966 and premiered by the Canadian Opera Company. But save for performances in the late 1960s and 1970s, it has only rarely been performed. Now, in 2017, in another anniversary of Confederation it has been revived in Toronto to mixed reviews that complained of dashed expectations, dated music and praise for the performances of its central figures. And next week it will open Canada Scene a massive celebration of Canadian culture at the National Arts Centre where Ottawa audiences will be able to make their own judgments.

“With the sesquicentennial there was great interest in re-looking at that piece and re-examining it 50 years later,” said the director Peter Hinton in an interview before the Toronto performances. He is a man well known to audiences in Ottawa as the former artistic director of English Theatre at the NAC.

Hinton noted that the opera appeared at the beginning of the emergence of modern Canadian theatre and opera. He also says that “building a repertoire involves revivals of works that warrant (a revival).” For the Canadian Opera Company in 2017, Riel warranted another look.

Peter Hinton is the director of the opera Louis Riel which will be at the National Arts Centre next week. Photo: David Cooper

The choice of Riel’s complicated tragic story for the original script, though, was a controversial one, Hinton believes.

“What I thought was very interesting about it was that Mavor Moore and Harry Somers were commissioned to write a piece about the Centennial and they chose the subject of Louis Riel. They could have written a pro-Confederation, pro-Up with People, We Are Canadian piece. Instead they chose a very provocative story that is as much about the division of colonization and the expansion of the West at the cost of self-government for Metis and Indigenous peoples.

“It’s an incredible history and one worthy of telling. I was really struck by that. John A. Macdonald, for example, is portrayed so critically. And if you look at how we are dealing with the oil sands and those who are the guardians of the land … to me there are very contemporary parallels to the Riel story.

“They said, about Sir John A., that he had two great problems to deal with; one was his relationship to the French and the other was to the First Nations. He met his match in Riel and the Metis because they were both French and aboriginal.”

The production needed to be revived, but Hinton said, it also needed to be considered in the context of 2017.

“If someone were to write that opera today, Metis and indigenous writers would be included in the creation and so the piece acknowledges that it is created without that.”

So he has adapted the work and made it massive with a cast of more than 100.

“The biggest demonstration of that revision is in the way that the choruses in the play are handled. In the original production a large opera chorus played a wide variety of characters from the Metis assembly to Orangemen at a demonstration in Toronto.

There will be, a ‘settler’ chorus which will sit on parliamentary bench above the action on stage, Hinton says.

“They debate the action, they legislate it, they argue its purpose and meaning but are ineffectual in changing the action.”

On the stage are the principal figures of history such as Macdonald and Riel. Also onstage is a 30 member indigenous chorus who take on the physical world of Riel’s story. “So if the opera calls for a barricade to be constructed it will be a barricade made of people. When we create Fory Garry there is a circle of 30 indigenous people that creates that.”

This “active, physical, silent, indigenous chorus protests the action that is sung in the opera,” Hinton says.

In a way it is Hinton’s effort to try to reflect some of the realities of Canada today.

“When we watch a barricade today we see the people on their land and we hear all the media and politicians argue about what it means and what should take place.”

A key part in the opera has also been reimagined.

“The original production had a character called the Folksinger who is a story teller. The character reveals the story of Riel. In our production that role is being sung by Jani Lauzon who is Metis. She sings in her own cultural tradition.”

Taking on Riel was difficult for Hinton, who is very attuned to the issues facing First Nations, Inuit and Metis people. He is well known for involving Indigenous performers in his work. Patrons of the NAC will recall his Indigenous version of King Lear a few years ago.

Still, there have been surprising issues that have emerged. One of the central songs of the piece is sung by Riel’s wife to open Act Three. It is actually a song of the Nisga’a people of British Columbia, and it is a ceremonial song which is only to be sung by certain people in certain contexts endnote in the way used by Harry Somers. The Ottawa audience will see two Nisga’a performers, Git Hayetsk and Kwhlii Gigaygum, sing this song in advance of the opera itself.

“It’s a very hard thing. I debated for a long time about doing this opera because it is not written by a Metis person. I’m not interested in appropriation, I’m not interested in, once again, having aboriginal heritage told by those who colonized.” But eventually he decided to take on the project in his own way.

“I’ve tried to bring as many voices to the table in this revision of the opera so we can examine it again with contemporary perspectives.”

That’s why the show is surtitled in French, English and Cree. And the Michif language of the Metis has been injected into the libretto. One of the biases against the Metis people, Hinton says, is that they are denied their culture because they are portrayed by some as “not really indigenous and not really white,” he says. And yet what Riel was trying to protect and develop was Metis culture. Michif, with nouns that are French and verbs that mostly Cree is an “incredibly unique language.” And when the Metis leaders talk together, Hinton wanted them to speak in the language they would have used.

So “we have translated parts of the original production.”

There is a surprising amount of spoken word in this opera, Hinton says.

“Harry Somers actually called it a drama with music because there is a lot of speaking. But, really, it is an opera. It is composed. It’s form is musical.

“He (Somers) said another interesting thing about the work: when the characters are speaking, they are telling the truth. When they are singing they are demonstrating, proselytizing, politicizing, advertising. It was a shock to me when I read that because more traditionally in the Broadway musical we look for the idea that speaking involves the mundane things of life and emotion and passion bursts out in song. Here it is the opposite. When look at this opera, what is actually spoken in it sometimes very profound and inspiring truths and sometimes very cruel truths.”

Hinton has spent a lot of time thinking, consulting and reading about Riel, the Metis leader who confronted the Canadian government in its drive westward in an effort to protect the heritage of his people. Eventually Riel would pay for this with his life.

“He (Riel) does not need to be forgiven. He needs to be acknowledged and vindicated. There is a great prejudice that exists that Riel was mad. It’s important to me that he is given the respect that a father of Confederation deserves. It was only recently that a portrait of Riel was hung in the legislature in Manitoba as a father of the province.

Is Hinton optimistic about the evolving relationship between Metis, First Nations, Inuit and settlers?

“I am optimistic. I think we are at a very exciting time when the truth has been spoken and healing is beginning and we are reckoning with a history that’s a lot of pain in it. We have to talk about it, encounter it. We have to listen. We have to recognize how far we have to go still. And we have to know our stories and our history.

“What’s amazing to me is the survival and rising wisdom of Indigenous people. This is very inspiring to me. … It’s a commitment I take very seriously.”

Is this the definitive telling of Riel’s story.

“By no means. Is it a legitimate one? Yes. An evolving one? Yes. It’s one version and hopefully one that helps unearth a lot of that history rather than trying to apologize for it. It’s a very challenging, difficult piece to do.

“There are colonial biases in it. It’s a settler’s vision of the story, but that is legitimate too. One mustn’t try to speak for someone else who is not you … but one should bring that voice to the table.”

Louis Riel

A co-presentation of the Canadian Opera Company and the National Arts Centre

Where: Southam Hall

When: June 15 and June 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.