"Louis Riel" was originally created to mark Canada's centennial in 1967, but a new incarnation of the opera about the famed Metis leader has an added poignancy given the current era of truth and reconciliation with indigenous peoples, says director Peter Hinton.
The Canadian Opera Company is reviving its homegrown production, created by composer Harry Somers and librettist Mavor Moore, ahead of Canada's 150th birthday.
"They could have chosen a story that was much idealized, that celebrated Confederation, that was a kind of sea-to-shining-sea national dream, up-with-people kind of tale. And they chose one of the great social injustices of our history. It's this very provocative story," Hinton says of the made-in-Canada opera.
Riel has been recognized as a founder of Manitoba and a champion and defender of Metis rights; but he remains a controversial figure in Canada's history, who has been viewed as both a hero and traitor.
Canadian baritone Russell Braun plays the title role in the opera, which centres on the resistance movements Riel led against the federal government: the 1870 Red River Rebellion in Manitoba, and the 1885 Battle of Batoche during the North-West Rebellion in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Another central focus of the production is Riel's trial on charges of high treason, which led to his eventual conviction and hanging.
"A big feature of that trial was whether he was sane or not," says Hinton.
"What he brings forward in his testimony is that if it is right for indigenous people to govern themselves, if that's the criterion of sanity, then he's insane. And he's not insane, and challenges the government. So, in that statement, not only is Louis Riel on trial, but Confederation is put on trial."
Hinton says if "Louis Riel" had been written today, there would have been greater representation among indigenous peoples, both in its creation and among its principal performers. But the current revival did set out to boost the visibility and voice of Canada's first peoples.
In addition to being sung in English and French, the opera will include a new translation of Cree by Manitoba-born actor and writer Billy Merasty, who is of Cree descent. Select scenes will also showcase spoken dialogue of Michif, the official language of the Metis that would have been spoken in the 19th century.
"In 1967, a large group of people played everybody. They played Orangemen, members of Metis assembly, parliamentary aides — just changed costumes. Here, we've culturally divided and separated the chorus," says Hinton.
"We've taken all of the operatic singing chorus and put them in contemporary dress, and they're made up largely of white immigrant, settler, contemporary people, and they're dressed like members of Parliament.
"They debate, they tell Louis Riel what to do, they argue, they comment, but they don't do anything. They are removed from the action; they sit and observe."
A group of indigenous performers onstage form the physical chorus known as the Land Assembly. While affected and engaged by all the unfolding actions, they remain silent.
"There's a tension between the body and the voice; between Canadian culture and colonized culture; between the indigenous and the immigrant; between silence and sound," says Hinton.
"The original production was all imagined taking place in the 19th century. This production has historical elements, but this contemporary chorus are onstage throughout. So, it's through a modern frame that we're looking at history."
"Louis Riel" runs from April 20 to May 13 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, and at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on June 15 and 17.
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Lauren La Rose, The Canadian Press