- Director’s Notes
My people will sleep for 100 years and when they wake, it will be the artists who give them back their souls.—Louis Riel, 1885
Louis Riel was the first opera written by a Canadian to be presented by the Canadian Opera Company. Commissioned by the Chalmers Foundation in 1966, the piece was devised to commemorate the centennial of Canada in 1967, and composer Harry Somers and librettist Mavor Moore chose the subject of Louis Riel. It was a contentious and provocative “celebratory” work. It is an artefact of its time and demands significant context in a contemporary revival.
In the last fifty years, although the opera has held a central place in the Canadian operatic canon, it has not been professionally revived since 1975. For Somers and Moore, defining history of struggle and representation in Canada’s West against colonialist and centralist objectives not only is a metaphor for the conflicts that forged the idea of Confederation but also serves as a cautionary reminder for present and future understandings of our country. The year 2017 marks the sesquicentennial of the Confederation of Canada, and the demands of Riel’s history remain ever more important as we reckon with current injustices and the necessary process of “truth and reconciliation.”
The challenges are many – and well worth the undertaking. Perhaps the most considerable challenge is the Eurocentric tradition of opera as a form and its collision with the voice, culture, and representation of Indigeneity in this history. Rather than avoid this tension, or suppose the score and libretto can authenticate a reality, the production uses the tensions of “good intention,” historical research and multiple community perspectives to expose the lines between truth and mythology, and co-existing perspectives of settler and Indigenous stances as Riel’s story is debated and retold.
Only recently (1 March 2016) was Riel’s portrait given prominence and due place alongside those of Manitoba’s premiers in the halls of the province’s legislative buildings. Dwight MacAulay, chief of protocol for the province states: “Riel is recognized by virtually everyone as the founding father of the province of Manitoba” (Kusch). However, it has taken 130 years to acknowledge this in the legislative building. While never premier, Riel was president of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, and he laid the groundwork for Manitoba to enter Confederation. It was a small gesture, with enormous impact – long overdue and of our time. This realignment of our history is what our production of Louis Riel hopes to address. [End Page 37]
Louis Riel is sung in English, French, Michif, and Cree. If it were written today, certainly there would be more Indigenous participation and involvement in its creation and its expression. It is noteworthy that in 1967 the opera was seen by many as an allegory for Canada’s two solitudes (French and English), and Riel’s representation to Métis and First Nations was ancillary to this. It is our intention that a more inclusive and expansive history shall be restored and amended for our 2017 production. It is a delicate balance of renewing the original spirit of the opera, with contemporary perspectives in order to expose the opera’s colonial biases and bring forward its inherent strengths and power.
Key to the success and meaning of this revival of Louis Riel is not only the work and ideas that we express and sing but also the counsel of those who have reminded us to listen. Throughout the conceptualization of this production, and through the rehearsal process, we have reached out and been in contact with members of the Indigenous community and followed their guidance and wisdom.
The notion of history is not linear but a circle; a circle that is inclusive and expanding. These are the teachings of Indigenous communities that inform our interpretation of Louis Riel. The expanding and inclusive circle of Indigenous teachings always runs the risk of appropriation and self-interest, especially in our current climate of shifting power and continued colonization. This production of Louis Riel may play a small part in this, but a vital one. While by no means is this a definitive production, it is...