In a normal year, Canadians flock to churches and concert halls for their annual fix of the holiday staple Handel’s Messiah. Yet in 2020, Messiahs are hard to come by, because of the pandemic and its shuttering of the performing arts as we know it. Up there with office holiday parties, an indoor space filled with people joyfully hollering the Hallelujah Chorus is decidedly a risky activity.
There is a bit of joy to be had, though, in Messiah/Complex, the filmed adaptation of Messiah that is a coast-to-coast collaboration between Against the Grain Theatre, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It’s a breathtaking feat: a score recorded by members of the TSO under maestro Johannes Debus, sung by 12 soloists and four choirs in six different languages, and filmed on location in every one of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories.
Messiah/Complex really is joyful. It comes with nostalgia, of course. For myself and any other settler-descended Canadian who heard Messiah around Christmas each year, the familiar sounds of Handel’s score signal community and tradition – white and European as it is. Yet in the hands of co-directors Joel Ivany, artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre, and Reneltta Arluk, Banff Centre director of Indigenous arts, Messiah becomes utterly Canadian.
Messiah takes its text from the King James Bible, yet Handel’s 1742 oratorio perseveres because its themes reach beyond a single source. The selected texts are about keeping hope, not giving into doubt and being good to one another. Messiah/Complex takes this universal message and localizes it, turning the loose narrative into small scenes about individual Canadian lives – specifically, the lives of the solo singers.
Tenor Spencer Britten (British Columbia) and his joyful Comfort ye, my people happens in the middle of Vancouver’s Davie Village, flanked by rainbow-painted crosswalks and his high-heel boots; Diyet (Yukon) sings a Tutchone translation of O thou that tellest, set against the stunning landscape of Yukon territory, that reminds us to admire and listen to the world around us; baritone Elliot Madore’s (Ontario) booming “The trumpet shall sound” is all about hockey, set in the Toronto arena where he often played as a child. There are stories about queerness, about immigration, about death and reincarnation. The music is shuffled around, bass arias given to a mezzo-soprano, or the pronouns changed in “He was despised.” It’s a total triumph in experimentation that is only a little bit baffling in its power.
Messiah/Complex also checks every box in the list of must-haves for a project such as this: BIPOC representation, conscientious collaboration with Indigenous artists, celebration of LGBTQIA+ lives, and excellently performed music. And like a textbook example of what we hope for when art takes this kind of social care, Messiah/Complex unveils a moving mosaic. Not even halfway through, I found myself marvelling at the sheer number of differences in the lives of Canadians, and my appreciation grew not just for Canada, but for Handel.
The big question: Why put so much energy into reinventing Messiah as a celebration of Canadian lives, when it is unavoidably not Canadian? Why bring in Indigenous artists to sing Handel’s music, to join in a holiday tradition that came with the settlers? Why not instead write a new piece, something rooted in the values that Messiah/Complex shares? The answer, for me, came surprisingly quickly: For better or for worse, Canadians respond to Messiah, and no new piece can match that kind of cultural context. Not for all, but for many, Handel’s music is a true part of the holiday season, and it signals joy.
“We are acutely aware of the contradictions Messiah brings,” read the titles at the top of the show. “The erasure of Indigenous language by generations of cultural undoing is being reclaimed by some of the soloists you will hear sing. It not only shows their resilience but their generosity.”
That act in itself seals the deal on the message of Messiah/Complex. Against the Grain, the Banff Centre and the TSO have amplified the message of hope and community that has always been in Handel’s work. And in a humbling, illuminating way, made a bit of nonsense out of a “traditional” Messiah, forever and ever.
Messiah/Complex is available to stream through January 7, with registration.