Parlando: The COC Blog


Honouring Indigeneity in Louis Riel

By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager


It was just one year ago that Louis Riel’s portrait was finally hung alongside those of Manitoba’s other premiers in the halls of Winnipeg’s Legislative Buildings. Although never premier, as President of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia he helped pave the way for Manitoba to enter Confederation—ironic given his subsequent execution for treason by the same Ottawa government determined to unite Canada at any cost. Manitoba’s small but significant acknowledgement of Riel’s key role was long overdue, but is the type of historical realignment that also informs director Peter Hinton’s new COC production of Louis Riel.

Like any form of artistic production, Louis Riel is an historical artifact, influenced by the perspectives of its authors, in this case two white men (composer Harry Somers and librettist Mavor Moore), and by its time period, those heady days of Centennial celebration in 1967, and as such, carries a certain degree of cultural baggage. Hinton’s production does not apologize for that, nor does it propose to be the definitive telling of Riel’s story. In comparison with the COC’s original 1967 staging, this 2017 rendition will represent a very carefully considered effort to “de-emphasize colonial biases [inherent in the piece] as much as we can”. To that end, Hinton has secured the involvement of a remarkable group of Métis and First Nations artists who will lend their perspective to Somers’ and Moore’s interpretation of history, retaining the integrity of the original piece but also bringing it into contemporary, inclusive practice.


When the opera begins, Cole Alvis, former executive director of the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance, will greet audiences with a territorial land acknowledgement and introduction that places the opera in a contemporary context. As The Activist, he will also be a member of the Land Assembly, the chorus of Indigenous women and men who silently challenge and retaliate, standing for the people and groups fighting for representation by Riel. The first music to be heard, the Folksinger’s unaccompanied song “Riel sits in his chamber o’ state”, will be sung by Métis performer Jani Lauzon in a contemporary non-operatic style—just one of the ways Hinton’s production introduces other cultural perspectives to an art form so steeped in its Western European roots. Other Métis and Indigenous performers include the young soprano Joanna Burt as Riel’s sister, Sara, bass-baritone Everett Morrison as Wandering Spirit, and celebrated dancer Justin Many Fingers (Mii-sum-ma-nis-kim) as Buffalo Dancer.

Hinton is adamant that his staging honour the opera’s iconic status while still leaving room to correct the historical inaccuracies and cultural insensitivities inherent in a piece conceived 50 years ago in a very different social/historical context. For example, according to the opera’s version of history, three men visit Riel in Montana and encourage his return to Manitoba to lead the Métis cause: Métis leader, Gabriel Dumont; Cree chief Poundmaker; and James Isbister, the lone Anglo-Métis delegate. In actual fact, a fourth man was part of the group, the European settler Louis Schmidt who has been re-included in this production. He will sing lines originally given to Poundmaker, allowing for a more nuanced, culturally sensitive portrayal of the great chief by Cree actor Billy Merasty.

One of the main challenges of re-staging Louis Riel is dealing with its complex conflation of languages. As Hinton points out, language itself defines much of the opera’s main content. Characters manipulate each other simply by speaking in a language the other cannot understand (for example French versus English) in order to make their political points. The original libretto was in English, French and Cree but for the first time with this production, Michif, the official Métis language colonized out of practice but now experiencing a revival, will form part of the sung and spoken text, in addition to being projected on stage alongside a new Cree translation.

From the earliest stages of his production’s development, Hinton has recognized that if the opera were written today “there would be more Indigenous participation and involvement in its creation and its expression.” While no staging can be definitive, Hinton’s aim has been to question suppositions the opera makes about the historical Riel; to provide a thoughtful, multi-faceted examination of what it commemorates; to question why we need to keep re-telling our history; and, to offer some perspective on what that history might mean today. Most importantly, it will give voice to Métis and First Nations perspectives that have not been brought to bear on this opera before and as such, contribute to Canada’s ongoing efforts to reach meaningful reconciliation with its Indigenous peoples.

Louis Riel is onstage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until May 13, 2017. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Photo credits (top - bottom): Scenes from Louis Riel ​(COC, 2012), photos by Michael Cooper.

Posted by COC Staff / in Louis Riel / comments (0) / permalink

Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001



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