Presentations of Handel’s Messiah are presented annually in the Christmas season. Apparently, it’s the most wonderful time of the year for the great Easter oratorio.
Like most in-person Messiah concerts this year, a live production from Toronto-based Against the Grain Theatre was scuttled because of the pandemic. The company quickly pivoted to a 70-minute filmed version, involving soloists in gorgeous open-air settings, that is far more ambitious than its original live staging.
It’s called Messiah/Complex. Why? It’s complicated and maybe culturally problematic.
Against the Grain’s take on the English-language Old Testament epic features four choirs and a diverse cast of a dozen Canadian BIPOC soloists representing every province and territory. The soloists sing in French, Arabic, English and a variety of Indigenous dialects. The Inuk soprano Deantha Edmunds, for example, performs her aria in Inuttitut.
The production raises questions. Is the nationwide presentation of a colonial piece of music a good fit for a multicultural Canada? And is it an issue that the production has Indigenous artists singing celebratory Bible-based music, given the Catholic church’s problematic handling of cultural relations in this country?
“It’s tricky,” says Joel Ivany, Against the Grain’s founder and artistic director. “Especially with our Indigenous artists.”
Ivany partnered with Reneltta Arluk, the Banff Centre’s director of Indigenous arts, to co-direct the interpretation. “It’s not easy, with the history of residential schools,” he says, “but the soloists were given liberties to interpret the text and to claim it as their own.”
Edmunds, representing Newfoundland and Labrador, asked an elder to translate the text for How Beautiful are the Feet. In her segment, filmed in Petty Harbour, N.L., “beautiful feet” refers to caribou tracks and the human footprints that follow them. “It’s about being connected to the Earth and our land and our homes,” she says, “and having a spiritual connection to the heavens, with Creator, the spirit – however you like to say it.”
Montreal mezzo Rihab Chaieb, who emigrated with her family from Tunisia as a child, changed her French-sung lyrics from “He was despised” to “she was despised.” The adjusted pronoun refers to herself and to her mother. “Every immigrant coming to Canada has been despised in one way or another,” says Chaieb, who has performed with the Canadian Opera Company and the Metropolitan Opera.
It’s not just the altered and/or translated libretto the soloists bring to Handel’s annual, but their own history. Grammy Award-winning Canadian baritone Elliot Madore, for example, was filmed at Toronto’s Weston Lions Arena, the hockey home of his childhood. The soloists’ stories and interpretations are spotlighted on the Against the Grain website.
According to Arluk, none of the singers, regardless of their cultural and religious affiliations, had issues with Messiah’s biblical narrative. “This isn’t the first time they’ve encountered any of this. When you sing classical music, it has a lot of religious connotations. It’s the nature of the music.”
Against the Grain is named as it is for a reason. If the tweaked multilingual text gets a rise out of the stand-and-singalong traditionalists, Ivany isn’t concerned. He’s an innovator devoted to breaking down barriers and finding new audiences; this a company famous for performing Puccini in pubs.
“We’re not perfect, and this production isn’t perfect,” he says. “But hopefully, it’s a step toward being more inclusive.”
Messiah/Complex is the company’s third hallelujah fest, starting in 2013 at a grungy rock venue. This year’s live show was scheduled for a run at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre, a sizable venue at 1,410 seats. The filmed overhauled variant will stream free of charge from Dec. 13 to 26.
Pivoting to a production that involved more than a dozen locations across the country was no small undertaking. The ever-shifting physical-distancing protocols that varied between provinces and territories kept the directors on their toes and open to low-tech solutions. Members of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir were forced to sing in shifts, surrounded by shower curtains.
Its own annual Messiah cancelled, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is on-board with Ivany. Just how does one hire the country’s largest symphonic gang as accompanists?
“At the beginning of the lockdown, the TSO wasn’t sure what kind of the content they’d be producing this season,” says Ivany, who was set to direct the orchestra’s since-cancelled production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. “They were excited to do something that included diverse artists reinterpreting a colonial piece of music.”
As were the soloists themselves. “My aria is simple, humble and grabs at your heart with its tenderness,” Edmunds says. “When I sing it, I truly connect with the light that we can all shine on each other.”
Handel’s Messiah, then, like Christmas, transcends its religious origins. Or as Chaieb puts it, “It’s not just Jesus’s story anymore.”
Hallelujah to that, one might say.
Register for Against the Grain’s Messiah/Complex at atgtheatre.com.
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