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Canadian Opera Company costume designer Gillian Gallow incorporated historical Canadiana with modern fashion to tell the story of the life and legacy of Louis Riel.

In the Canadian Opera Company's latest production, Jeremy Freed learns that costume design is being used to re-interpret history

The clothes we associate with our national identity – with being Canadian – say a lot about how we see ourselves. There's plaid, of course, HBC stripes and the Mounties' red serge, but that's only part of the story. As we look back at the last 150 years, we have an opportunity to not just retell the same tales of frontiers people, settlers and their indigenous neighbours, but to revisit these ideas with a new perspective. For Gillian Gallow, costume designer of the Canadian Opera Company's Louis Riel (on until May 13 at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre) that task took centre stage.

Costume designer Gillian Gallow.

"My role as a designer is to heighten our understanding of the story," she says, seated in the COC's Toronto costume shop at a long table that's covered with sketches and fabric swatches. "In this particular instance it's a unique opportunity." As Canadian stories go, that of Métis activist Louis Riel is a particularly controversial one. Canadian school kids learn that Riel led the Red River Rebellion, an uprising by French-indigenous settlers against a fledgling Canadian government with ambitions to annex their Manitoba homeland. As an advocate for the rights of the Métis, Riel faced off against John A. Macdonald and other Fathers of Confederation, a course that made him a hero to some, and a traitor to others. After more than a decade of clashes with Ottawa over the rights of settlers and indigenous people in the prairies, Riel was captured, tried for treason and executed in 1885. While Canadians can mostly agree on these facts, his place in history remains a contentious one. Despite some high-profile efforts to overturn his conviction posthumously, he has never officially been exonerated.

The action of Louis Riel takes place as his life flashes before his eyes on the way to the gallows, and as such, the show is freed from obligations to objectivity. Instead, Gallow and director Peter Hinton endeavour to present the Métis leader's story from the perspective of the man himself. "A lot of Canadians have a kind of colonial sentimentality about the 19th century," says Hinton, who is the first to re-stage the show since its premiere in 1967. "It's very easy to idealize that time, but we have to also remember that confederation was forged at great cost, and with a great political agenda." With that in mind, Gallow's costumes aim to strike a balance between historical fact and artistic expression. "As much as we look at history, I'm not interested in creating museum theatre," says the designer, whose creations take cues from contemporary fashion and period photographs, with much creative license mixed in. "The opera tries to present Louis Riel's honest desire to do right by his people."

Gallow used a clashing collection of colours and textures to convey the conflicts between Riel and the Métis and the Fathers of Confederation.

To illustrate the opposing agendas at the heart of the story, Gallow contrasts heritage pieces with modern ones. Riel and his Métis compatriots' clothing combine indigenous and European influences – heavy wool coats, moccasins, muskets and beadwork – expressing their identity as a fusion of old world and new. For Macdonald and the Fathers of Confederation, meanwhile, Gallow envisioned a more urbane look of trim tailored suits in red and blue plaid. Plaid was fashionable in the Victorian era, says Gallow, but these costumes (riffing on a runway collection by Japanese designer Masanori Morikawa) have a decidedly more contemporary feel. The effect is one of stark contrast. "We wanted the worlds to feel as disparate as possible," she says, a visual way to address the chasm – both geographical and idealogical – that separated Macdonald's Ottawa and Riel's Manitoba. "These are the people living on the land and these are the people trying to rule, and they are completely disconnected." Between the two sides is a touch of whimsy in the form of Donald Smith, the HBC chairman who acted as negotiator between Riel and Ottawa. His coat and trousers emblazoned with the brand's iconic stripes may not be historically accurate (they were inspired in part by a Vivienne Westwood ensemble), but they immediately identify his place between these two worlds.

A chorus of indigenous performers onstage throughout the opera are clothed in a sea of red, and then, at a critical moment, change to black.

Riel's name may be the title, but his isn't the only story being told by this production. "This opera was created with not much indigenous involvement," Gallow says of Harry Somers' original libretto. Gallow and Hinton attempted to make up for this with the addition of the Land Assembly, a chorus of indigenous performers who remain onstage for the duration of the opera. "Riel was fighting for the people of his time," she says, "but the Land Assembly today are the people he was fighting for and about." Silent witnesses to the action unfolding onstage, they are clothed in a sea of red, and then, at a critical moment, change to black. Not the subtlest of metaphors, but a telling one all the same. It's here, perhaps, that the message of Louis Riel becomes clearest. "Louis Riel represents not only what unifies us, but what divides us," says Hinton. "This isn't a story that belongs to the past, this history lives on today."

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