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A rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Louis Riel is held at the Tanenbaum Opera Centre in Toronto. (Sam Gaetz/The Globe and Mail)
A rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Louis Riel is held at the Tanenbaum Opera Centre in Toronto. (Sam Gaetz/The Globe and Mail)

How the COC set out to solve the problem with Louis Riel Add to ...

At the end of Harry Somers and Mavor Moore’s iconic Canadian opera, Louis Riel, Sir John A. Macdonald utters his prophetic curse: “He shall die though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour.”

And of course Riel did die, and those dogs did bark – basically for a century. There’s little question that, in the history of French-English relations in this country, a relatively straight line can be drawn from the execution of Riel in 1885 to the Quebec referendum of 1995 – a line of mistrust and hostility between the two “founding” peoples.

The problem with Louis Riel, the history, and Louis Riel, the opera, has become increasingly clear in these past few years of truth and reconciliation: There were not two founding peoples in Canada; there was one founding group of nations and two colonizing countries – and the silencing and suppression of those founding nations for the benefit of the colonizers is a story we are just now learning to tell and hear. And it’s not an easy story to tell or hear.

So, if you’re the Canadian Opera Company, in this Canada 150 year, and want to revive the ambitious Canadian opera Louis Riel 50 years after its creation, what do you do about the limitations built into the conception of the piece and into its score and libretto? What do you do about the fact that Riel’s Indigenous heritage and that of the Métis nation he led are fitfully and inaccurately portrayed in the work? To say the least.

Well, one thing you do is hire director Peter Hinton to lead the production. Hinton, formerly of the Shaw Festival and the National Arts Centre (NAC), is a director noted for his sympathies with Indigenous cultures and performing traditions. Hinton made it a point to include several Indigenous productions in the seven seasons he programmed at the NAC. His work helped the NAC announce just last month its plans to create a department of Indigenous theatre for the 2019 season.

But even for Hinton, Louis Riel was a challenge. “I approached the piece when I first heard about it with a certain degree of apprehension,” he told me frankly in a quiet space at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, away from the hurly-burly of daily rehearsals. “What’s so difficult in approaching this opera – I deal with this every day – is that there is an amazing insight in it, a great scene, then there’s this huge blind spot, then there’s this huge colonial bias and then there’s this amazing scene. You can’t throw a generalized blanket over it and say it’s all racist or it’s all brilliant. It’s a bit of both constantly.”

Librettist Moore and composer Somers were commissioned by the Floyd S. Chalmers Foundation in the more innocent mid-1960s to write an opera for Canada’s centennial and they chose the Riel story as their focus. It was an unusually ambitious project for a country just finding its artistic voice.

But its limitations were our limitations at the time. The Riel story was seen then as primarily a battle between French and English interests in Canadian history, between a nation-building Macdonald and a regional leader standing up for his people’s rights. The opera often focuses on the personal battle between the two men (although they never meet) and casts the cultural battle between white and Indigenous Canada into the distant shade or ignores it entirely. Métis culture, sensibility, language and song are a flicker in the background of the work. That’s the nature of the piece, part of its reality – it’s an artifact, as Hinton says, of the era in which it was created and in which it is imprisoned.

Hinton’s attempts to engage this piece and open it up to a more modern sensibility, he says, were inspired somewhat by the thinking of the Resistance 150 movement, a group of Indigenous artists who chose to approach the Canada 150 celebratory project by highlighting Canada’s 15,000-year Indigenous history in stark contrast. Their mantra: “Remember, resist and redraw.”

Some of the redrawings that Hinton enmeshed into Louis Riel were simpler to achieve than others. Michif, the Métis language, is featured in this production, but not in the original. A celebration scene set in Fort Garry is being used to demonstrate the rituals associated with the Métis buffalo hunt rather than being played as a drunken debauch. Indigenous artists have been cast in some roles.

In his most creative adaptation, Hinton has divided the traditional opera chorus in two. There is a mainly white chorus, who represent, at varying times, members of Parliament, the racist crowds stirred up by Ontario Orangemen and the spectators at Riel’s trial. This chorus speaks and sings but is confined on stage to an immense jury-box-like set, so it is heard but does not interact with the principals on stage. The second chorus, which Hinton calls the Land Assembly, comprises Indigenous performers (there are more than 60 cast members in all). It is on stage, interacts and responds to the action of the opera – but is mute. It’s an intriguing attempt to engage the limitations of the piece right before our eyes and ears.

This dual nature of Louis Riel – its limitations, as well as the possibility of its increasingly accurate presentation of Indigenous reality – has made this production a complex intellectual, political and emotional puzzle for all its artists, but especially those in the Indigenous community. Some members of the community have chosen not to be involved with the production. It’s a decision Cole Alvis, a Métis actor and former Indigenous arts administrator, completely understands – though Alvis made the opposite decision, choosing to play the Activist in the production, a new non-singing role that Hinton created for the show.

Alvis’s thinking about the opera focuses not just on Indigenous involvement in the production, which admittedly may be inconsistent, but what it means for a major cultural institution such as the COC to commit itself to Indigenous performance art. “Perhaps this piece can’t be built on the most solid Indigenous foundation. So we shift our goals to the long game. We look for cracks in the foundation, for small victories now that can lead to Indigenous-led projects in the future.”

As a committed Indigenous artist choosing to participate in this production, Alvis is constantly reassessing the decision-making process and has a personal point of reference for a guide. “I’m willing to co-operate and participate and collaborate with people who I see are also willing to take action and make change and move forward. I will have patience if I can see we’re having a conversation and a willingness to find somewhere new to go together.”

But before we create a future, we must deal with the past. Hinton notes that he has reconfigured the production, in a way, as a constant trial scene. “The set is like an immense courtroom,” he said, “so we can dramatize Riel’s trial. But it’s also where Thomas Scott, the Orangeman, is put on trial by the Métis Council. But Confederation is on trial in this, and, in an interesting way, the opera itself is on trial. It’s not a trial whether it’s a good opera or a bad opera, but whether it’s a true opera. What does it say to us today? A trial is not a foregone conclusion of guilt or innocence but a process in which we investigate, in which we find what holds up and what doesn’t. In essence, that’s what this production is all about.”

The dogs of Riel are still barking in Canadian history, but they are new dogs with a new message for us. A message not necessarily of hurt and alarm but of warning and, ultimately, hope. When we hear what we previously refused to acknowledge – however much we may initially resist – understanding becomes a possibility. And from understanding everything follows.

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