By Claudine Domingue, Director of Public Relations
During the summer of 2016, the COC’s Director of Public Relations, Claudine Domingue, spoke with singers and creative team members who were part of the original 1967 production of Louis Riel. Sadly, Bernard Turgeon, who originated the role of Louis Riel, passed away in October 2016, just a few short months after this interview took place. We are grateful that his memories of this iconic Canadian work, along with those of the rest of these great artists, have been preserved and are now being shared with a new generation of Louis Riel audiences.
There’s no question that the world premiere of Louis Riel in 1967 was a seminal moment in the COC’s storied history. But, after speaking with several of the original collaborators, it became quickly apparent that the production was equally momentous in the lives of the artists who created it. Fifty years after its first performance, these artists speak about it as if it happened just yesterday, with all the joy, apprehension and excitement they must have experienced then.
“I think the whole thing; the fact that it was a new work—a Canadian work—with Canadian composer, librettist, conductor and director, and all the Canadian singers, made it really special,” says Leon Major, the original production’s director. Conductor Victor Feldbrill concurs. “To be involved with the very first important Canadian opera was a tremendous responsibility, and a great challenge.” Major and Feldbrill were brought on early to the project while composer Harry Somers and librettist Mavor Moore were still working on the opera.
“It was quite an accomplishment, and such a team effort,” says Feldbrill. “Leon, me, Murray Laufer and Marie Day—we were there every moment of the composition as Harry was composing. We got to know the work as it was being created.”
All of them speak about the care they took to tell the tale as responsibly as possible. Major says that the entire team worked for over a year on the project. “The research that Murray, Marie, Bernard and I did was extraordinary. We wanted to make sure it was accurate, and we didn’t want to short-change anyone.”
Costume designer Marie Day, who, along with her husband set designer Murray Laufer, created the look of the opera, calls the months spent researching Riel’s life and times “an amazing adventure.” They wanted the show to be historically pertinent. “History made Riel out to be a kind of shabby half-breed who probably never had a bath, but we wanted to get him right. It mattered so much to us.” In the spirit of accuracy Day went so far as giving Turgeon an actual buffalo coat that he wore throughout rehearsals. It was “incredibly hot and heavy and smelly—and he wore it all the time—I don’t know how he did it,” says Day.
Wearing a real buffalo coat throughout rehearsals was just one of the ways baritone Bernard Turgeon threw himself into the title role. When he found out he’d been given the part, Turgeon picked up and moved to Saint Boniface, Manitoba for almost two years. There he absorbed Riel’s world—the people, the environment, the history—as thoroughly as he could before coming back to Toronto to rehearse.
As Major says, “Bernard made that role. He took Louis Riel into his own body. In rehearsal, when I’d go to talk to him, I was talking to Riel, not Bernard.” Roxolana Roslak, who sang the role of Marguerite, Riel’s young wife, agrees, “He was so possessed, in the most positive sense, by the character that it was incredible to watch.” And Feldbrill adds, “Bernard was Louis Riel from day one.”
For his part, Turgeon admitted “it was the greatest, most difficult experience of my life.” But, ever humble, he gave his castmate the kudos, “I thought Roxy’s aria [the unaccompanied lullaby, ‘Kuyas’] was the highlight of the evening.”
Roslak herself notes that, apart from the technical difficulty of the music, Somers perfectly positioned the lullaby at the beginning of Act III to allow for the greatest impact. “After two acts featuring very tumultuous music and mostly male voices, it was such a beautiful change of pace. Out of the darkness and quiet there’s just… sound.” The lullaby starts as description of the hunt then transitions into a soothing lullaby as Marguerite rocks her infant son to sleep, and by the end is “almost a cry from the heart. Harry was like that; he put the work in the notes and let you discover it yourself.”
To a person, all agree that a new COC production is cause for celebration, even if some may have had some initial misgivings. Day admits, “at first, I didn’t want anyone to touch what we did. But now I’m really excited, because we have a whole new generation looking at the story!”
As Leon Major enthuses, “I’m just thrilled the COC is doing a new production. It would be a calamity if you tried to do a similar version, or to copy what we did. It was 50 years ago. It would be madness. It would be a throwback. No, no, it has to be now.”
This article originally appeared in the COC’s Fall 2016 Program.
Photo credits (top - bottom): A scene from Louis Riel (COC, 1975); (l-r) Donald Saunders, Bernard Turgeon, John Arab, and Peter Milne in Louis Riel (COC, 1975); Roxolana Roslak in Louis Riel (COC, 1975). Photos by Robert Ragsdale.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001