My Canada, 86/150: Operatic endeavours

The thing I remember most about my first opera was the stuck dragon.

This was a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and we high-school music students came by the busload to the then-called O’Keefe Centre in Toronto to see this master work. Our hero, Tamino, is supposed to slay the dragon — except the poor huge dragon-puppet wouldn’t budge. Finally, the performance was halted while stage crew came out and attended to the matter.

Those annual pilgrimages to Canadian Opera Company performances continued through high school and I upped my opera game in university when I took a summer full-credit course through the University of Waterloo in Vienna, Austria, where we went to seven operas over three weeks, five at Staatsoper (the State Opera House) and two at Theater an der Wien, plus another dozen concerts, from Hadyn’s Creation Oratorio in the Musikverein to a string quartet in a park.

While I trained in singing while doing a music minor at university, it became quickly apparent I didn’t have what it took to become a “serious” singer capable of opera and lieder at professional levels. That training, however, makes me all the more awestruck when I hear classically trained singers do their thing. Canada, for a reason no-one has ever quite figured out, has an astounding number of famous serious singers successful on the international stage, given the relative size of our population.

Opera is an art form born of late-16th century Europe, specifically Italy. What’s now called “opera seria” has no speaking whatsoever; all lines are sung.

The Canadian Encyclopedia gives a thorough history of opera development in Canada that provides details to this summary: touring companies performed European opera. A few operas were written by Canadian composers but often were lost or forgotten after originally performed. After the Second World War, some permanent opera companies began to form in Canada’s larger cities, again performing European operas.

Coming to the end of the 20th century, Canadian composers started writing operas based on Canadian stories with more frequency, many  classified as “chamber operas”, performed with a small group of musicians rather than a full orchestra. There is a practical reason for this: a full-blown opera is monstrously expensive to produce. There’s a big orchestra, principal singers, another chorus of singers, sometimes dancers, and all the usual design, direction and expense of any kind of theatrical endeavour. “Chamber operas” are more nimble, with just a few instrumentalists, possibly a small cast of singers, and more easily adaptable to small theatres.

In any account of Canadian opera, Harry Somer’s Louis Riel is singled out as an important work. A full-scale opera with lyrics by Mavor Moore telling an important story from Canada’s history, first produced in 1967 to honour Canada’s centenary, it’s getting an updated revival by the COC in 2017, with performances scheduled for Toronto at the Four Seasons Centre, the opera’s home since 2006, and Ottawa.

With my work in the theatre and background in music, I know many artists. For many years I lived in Stratford where baritone Jamie Westman, who plays Sir John A. MacDonald in this production, also makes his home. I worked with director Peter Hinton and designer Michael Gianfrancesco  while publicist at the Stratford Festival, and met Russell Braun, who plays the title role of Riel, when he performed with his wife, pianist/accompanist Carolyn Maule, at Parry Sound’s Festival of the Sound.

Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure as Sir George-Étienne Cartier and James Westman as Sir John A. Macdonald in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Peter Hinton, set designer Michael Gianfrancesco, costume designer Gillian Gallow, lighting designer Bonnie Beecher, and choreographer Santee Smith. Photo: Michael Cooper

The 2017 production, as much as can be done within the confines of the original music and words, updates the 1967 version, which focuses heavily on animosity between Canadian French and English, with only passing, derogatory references to the Métis, a recognized aboriginal group in Canada descended from European and First Nations people (even though the title character, Louis Riel, himself was Métis, as were many of the people he led). The production adds a mostly silent, but visually imposing, chorus of Métis and casts aboriginal performers in roles, including Ojibwe singer Joanna Burt as Sara Riel, Louis’s sister. The program book includes essays on “Honouring indigeneity in Louis Riel”, and “The Nisga’a history of the ‘Kuyas’ Aria”; it seems composer Somer based this aria, sung by Marguerite Riel (Louis’ wife) over the crib of their child (to me, the opera’s musical highlight), on the aboriginal mourning song, “Song of Skateen” without permission or attribution.

The opera’s music is in modern mode: As director Hinton put it in an interview with  Maclean’s magazine, “You’re not going to leave The Four Seasons humming a song from Riel!” The evening we saw it, there were significantly fewer people in their seats after the intermission. It is a challenging work on many levels, not least of which is how Somers’ and Moore’s creative interpretation of historic events angers and hurts the very people it is about. That this production recognizes those issues, and has reached out to indigenous advisers and artists to shape this new interpretation, is a small step toward, as Hinton writes, “a realignment of our history.” Which, in 2017 Canada, is something worth singing about.

Main photo: Russell Braun as Louis Riel in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Peter Hinton, set designer Michael Gianfrancesco, costume designer Gillian Gallow, lighting designer Bonnie Beecher, and choreographer Santee Smith. Photo: Sophie I’anson.

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