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Spy Dénommé-Welch's latest work, together with longtime collaborator Catherine Magowan, is Canoe, opening at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre in Toronto on Sept. 15.Jennifer McCready/Handout

Who says academia and art don’t go together?

Spy Dénommé-Welch (Algonquin-Anishnaabe) is associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous arts, knowledge systems and education, at the University of Western Ontario, and is also a longtime writer, composer and director, with many of his operatic works exploring the intersections of history, representation and received mythologies.

His latest work, together with longtime collaborator Catherine Magowan, is Canoe, opening at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre in Toronto on Sept. 15. The work is a collaboration between Native Earth Performing Arts (NEPA), Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM), the Toronto Consort and Unsettled Scores, a company founded by Dénommé-Welch and Magowan in 2006 with a mandate, as its website states, to “explore and reflect difficult Canadian and global histories.”

Canoe aims to explore a key piece of outdoor gear central to the popular Canadian imagination from a First Nations perspective using four characters and a chamber ensemble. The sonic results might clash, but as Dénommé-Welch told The Globe and Mail in an interview recently, that’s part of the point.

Where did the idea for Canoe originate?

Just prior to doing my first opera, Giiwedin, in 2010, I started to conceive of another concept: what the story might be around the creation of the very first canoe. Who would have been involved in that? What would that storytelling world look like? People come with different understandings and personalities – one First Nations group itself can be very diverse – so I’m not suggesting this comes from one specific community, but more from natural elements themselves. I really wanted to create an ensemble feel, and to see how the characters all support one another in and through their own transformations within that story.

How does the instrumentation complement a First Nations-led story?

When we’re in a relationship with the music and sound, we can explore human conditions differently. If there’s perhaps eight bars of just instrumental music, and there’s this moment where the sound can live in the air for a moment, you can process it in a different way; the sound actually gets into the layers that are important, and people’s different ways of processing, be they kinesthetic, visual, auditory, aural or sensory. I think what drew me to this art form pretty early in my career is that I felt it could be a space to experiment with all of these elements. They invite many possibilities in terms of where to take a story – hearing it one way, but presenting it in ways that could and do clash sonically. The music doesn’t have to be atonal but it can have such a different tone or vibe to it, so it can open up a door for listeners to enter and engage with a story, and to amplify that sound with the characters they are witnessing bear their stories.

Why use opera, an art form traditionally perceived as Eurocentric?

We do view it as a Eurocentric art form, but I bend it in a way that can better serve the work. A violin can become a fiddle; a fiddle can become a violin; a cello can become percussive. There are a lot of ways I transform the perceptions around the voices of these instruments, or these stories, or these characters. I really find this approach helpful in confronting a space which has not always been inviting, but punitive in some cases – the idea of excellence is viewed in one particular way, but there are other kinder, gentler ways that can be as quick if not quicker and more effective, ways which open up the artist to feel they are not simply filling a role but bringing their artistry, craft and excellence. There’s not one voice more important than the other; every person contributed something that’s really important. Models of consensus are not necessarily new.

How does the involvement of partners (NEPA, TPM, the Toronto Consort) help facilitate this objective?

It’s an excellent model for collaboration, especially the inter-organizational, intergenerational, intercultural aspects. There are many teams involved with each other – people in outreach who confer with people in production who then might confer with the creative team. You have to honour the fact that different organizations have different timelines and approaches – they might work season by season, or launch sooner than others, so you must co-ordinate carefully. We’ve had the opportunity to problem-solve together, taking a triangle and rounding it – it opens up pathways to having more fluid, respectful conversations.

How has your academic work informed your creative work, and vice-versa?

The way I work as a professional in the arts world has impacted the way I think about teaching or assisting emerging scholars. I apply what could be called a dramaturgical approach, asking about the structure or the choices being made, so a scholar can go away and feel empowered to make decisions for themselves about what needs to stay or go as part of a thesis or inquiry. Similarly, extending compassion to learners has informed how I work as a composer, director and artistic director. Learning is a process, and when you have to have tough conversations, more minds at the table makes the difference when everyone believes in a project in order for it to live really well. You have to build a community of people who can excel and feel respected, and be there to help carry the weight.

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