Toronto’s Luminato festival has a strong thread this year focusing on a little-understood war – the War of 1812 between Canada and the U.S.

The festival, which starts Friday, has a wide-ranging program featuring theatre, music, performance, literature and art from around the world. Among the high-profile productions is the North American premiere of a new production of Einstein on the Beach, the groundbreaking 1976 opera by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass. The work hasn't been seen in North America for two decades.

Also hotly anticipated are the celebration of the music of Kate McGarrigle at Massey Hall and La Belle et la Bête: A Contemporary Retelling, an internationally acclaimed dance creation by Montreal’s Lemieux Pilon 4D Art.

Anna McGarrigle, Kate's sister and the other half of their former musical duo, said the tribute is a fitting way to raise her late sister's profile.

"I'm not the first one to say it — my sister was a genius," she told Canadian Press. "She was really original and a wonderful musician and a great songwriter."

Laura Secord's muddy journey

While those two keynote productions do not, many of the events revolve around the War of 1812.

The war is subject of a formal debate, as historians Stephen Clarkson and Jack Granatstein ponder whether the U.S. has coveted Canada since losing the war 200 years ago.

But it's also an occasion for a lot of fun, as when the Canadian Children's Opera Company presents Laura's Cow, a children’s opera telling the story of Laura Secord’s trip through a mucky Ontario night to warn the British that the Americans had invaded Canada at Queenston, Ont. Her husband had been wounded in the battle that killed the British army officer Isaac Brock.

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Children of the Canadian Children's Opera Company perform Laura's Cow in period costume. (Luminato)

Librettist Michael Patrick Albano had been pondering an opera based on the story of the Canadian heroine for more than 10 years, according to Ann Cooper Gay, CCOC’s artistic director.

In this version, the cow sings to help Secord find her way through the swamp to warn the British.

"Most likely Laura had a cow — I'm sure, they lived on the farm. But the cow represents Laura's conscience and it's fun! It's a talking, singing cow," Cooper Gay told CBC News.

"Go back to 1812, for a woman to accept doing the job that [Laura Secord] did, that was a man's job to go through the backwoods and get to the troops and warn them. And she had to do that and you know that wasn't easy because she had children too," she said.

The school groups who have already seen the program love the cow character, making a beeline for her at the end of the production, she said.

"The joy is that kids can do anything adults can do. They really can," Cooper Gay says of her group, who sing alongside adult stars such as John Fanning. "And it's believing in them, and holding them to a high standard, and they don't have preconceived ideas. 'Oh, do you want me to pull this cow on? I'll pull this cow on.'"

This production highlights a forgotten part of the 1812 campaign – the important role of First Nations people in stopping the American invasion. Part of the libretto is in Ojibway, the language that the natives who helped Secord spoke.

The Encampment at Fort York

Stories of First Nations participation in the War of 1812 are also a focus at The Encampment, a unique art project taking over Fort York.

Luminato events

  • Einstein on the Beach (opera): June 8-10.
  • Playing Cards 1: Spades (theatre): June 13-17.
  • Laura's Cow: June 6-10.
  • La Belle et la Bête (dance): June 8-12.
  • Stewart Goodyear: The Beethoven Marathon: June 9.
  • Love Over and Over: The songs of Kat McGarrigle: June 15.
  • Free concerts: David Pecaut Square: June 8-17
  • The New Yorker at Luminato: Annie Proulx: June 10.
  • Caribbean Summit: June 9.

The Encampment turns Fort York into the kind of military camp it would have been, with 200 tents on the site, before it was taken by U.S. forces.

Thom Sokoloski, co-curator of the site with Jenny-Anne McCowan, said their intent was to tell the stories of ordinary people caught up in the war.

"What happened to the people in Toronto, in York, at that time, when 1,600 Americans came in and pillaged the hell out of the city and took everything else," Sokoloski said.

Sokoloski and McCowan have gathered dozens of stories of real people in a "story bank" about the war and asked 100 contributors to create exhibits related to these stories inside the tents.

Sokoloski says not many people know the history of the war.

"They might go, wow, 1812 is a very fascinating thing —  not just about muskets and cannons and red coats and people killing each other. There were some very crucial, interesting, disturbing, unfortunate and wild stories going on while all the war was happening," he said.

More than 30 of the stories they gathered involve First Nations people, who gathered under the great leader Tecumseh to oppose the American invasion.

Contributing artist Sarena Johnson devoted her tent to the story of Tecumseh’s second in command, Stiata, who captured American General James Winchester, and was involved in all major battles of the War of 1812, including the siege of Detroit.

"I've got a tree with different symbols that represents him and a beaded owl as he was an older warrior and so [would be considered] a wise and experienced mentor to Tecumseh," she said. There is also a skull on a spike, to reflect how intimidating he would have been as a warrior, she said.

Each tent reflects a different story – and is meant to look like an archeological exhibit. Every evening between June 9 and 14 there will be a presentation or performance to draw audiences into the story. 

Another Luminato exclusive takes us to a more modern war. Robert Lepage’s new work, Spades, alternates between the war in Iraq and the casinos of Las Vegas, with stories of chance, luck and the private demons of former soldiers.

Any new Lepage work is an event and Spades is part of an international collaboration that will see a four-part series by the Quebec writer-producer presented around the world. After Spades will come Hearts, Clubs and Diamonds.

Lepage’s multilingual work has had only a single presentation – in Madrid – where it was greeted as an ambitious multi-faceted drama.

The work is designed to be presented in the round and his Quebec-based Ex Machina has designed a special round stage to house the multi-media effects of the production. In Toronto there is no theatre in the round – it will be presented at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre.