- Editors’ Introduction: Hearing Riel
The catalyst for this special issue on “Hearing Riel” was the 2017 revival of Harry Somers and Mavor Moore/Jacques Languirand’s Louis Riel, an opera commissioned for Canada’s centennial in 1967 and revived by the Canadian Opera Company as part of Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations in 2017. That centennial–sesquicentennial link arguably made Louis Riel the obvious choice for highlighting the national occasion with an opera production – perhaps even the first option that a Canadian operagoer might think of. Yet it would barely take a second thought to realize that its subject matter would necessarily make it nearly as controversial as the event it was intended to acknowledge.
Anniversaries are attractive; indeed, they can prove nearly irresistible. Perhaps most predictably, they appear as occasions for celebration, and the 150th marker of the federation originally known as the Dominion of Canada was a prime example of the type and scale of anniversary that was clearly not to be missed. The Canadian government prepared well in advance, creating tantalizing funding opportunities for commemorative and celebratory initiatives, but it was scarcely imaginable that any such occasion following hard on the heels of the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could be convincingly billed as merely a very big party. Yet even those who are more inclined to reflection than revelry are compelled to recognize such occasions. Academics in the humanities, for example, may typically cast a more critical than laudatory eye on commemorative dates, but scepticism is not a good reason for sitting one out. The truth is that we are inexorably drawn to anniversaries, which have the capacity to fuel the industry of scholarly production as well as, or perhaps even better than, a really good theory.
This special journal issue, then, really emerges from a potent combination of recurrences – a fifty-year-old operatic revenant whose origin, observing the hundredth of the national entity now turning 150, warranted its revival as marker again – both of which were controversial enough to urge a response and a sesquicentennially funded response, no less. Several of these articles originated as presentations given at a sold-out symposium held at Innis College at the University of Toronto, which is located on un-ceded traditional Indigenous territory.1 The symposium took place on 21 April 2017, following [End Page 1] the opening night performance of the sesquicentennial opera revival at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto the previous evening. Not surprisingly, the new all-Canadian production of Louis Riel, whose anniversary revival plans the Canadian Opera Company had already flagged years in advance, triggered a wide range of critical responses, and this one-day symposium provided ample opportunity to address the opera’s fraught historical subject matter and its political implications for today.2 Members of the opera production team joined professionals, academics, and graduate students from different fields to generate rich discussions that readily justified our own funding application’s promise to assemble this publication, tackling some of the problematic issues raised by the work and the new challenges arising from writing and staging Indigenous opera in Canada today.
As discussed by Robin Elliot and Paula Danckert in their contributions, Mavor Moore’s libretto of the opera was loosely derived from John Coulter’s earlier play. Entitled Riel, this drama turned out to perform an important role in the growth of Canadian nationalism in the 1960s (Anthony 62). Similarly, the opera also focuses on the controversially polarizing and compelling figure of Louis Riel—politician, Métis leader, and founder of Manitoba—who led two rebellions against the government of Sir John A. Macdonald. Hanged as a “traitor” to Canada in 1885, Riel in death, as in life, managed to reawaken hostilities between Ontario and Quebec, Orangemen and Catholics, English and French, making him a powerful image of the divisive forces that have shaped Canada.3 In fact, Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer called him the personification of the “dissonance at the root of the Canadian temperament” (49). In the opera, the character of Sir John A. Macdonald proclaims...