North

Tlicho man chosen as soloist for world premiere of 'The River of Light' opera

The River of Light — an oratorial combining narration and music which showcases Tlicho language and stories — had its world premiere in Vancouver Friday night.

'I've never even seen a symphony, and now I'm a part of it as a soloist. It's pretty crazy,' says Mason Mantla

Mason Mantla of Behchoko, N.W.T., was the Tlicho soloist in The River of Light performance at the Vancouver Opera on Friday. The opera showcased Tlicho culture and stories about the northern lights. (Tim Matheson/Vancouver Opera)

Tlicho culture was honoured in a multi-movement performance at the Vancouver Opera Friday night.

The River of Light — an oratorial performance combining narration, singing and music — had its world premiere.

The concert was based on the idea of transcendence into light from the point of view of several world traditions. Each movement's narration was written by writers and playwrights of various cultures — from Hinduism to Judaism, and even Tlicho.

The individual movements had their own shows last year, but on Friday, it was the first time all of them were performed together.

"It's pretty grand," said Mason Mantla, of Behchoko, N.W.T. He was the Tlicho soloist in the performance. He compared it to productions like Fantasia.

Mantla, a Dene filmmaker, was chosen to narrate celebrated Tlicho fiction writer Richard Van Camp's writing a couple of months ago, after Van Camp said he couldn't make the production.

"I've never even seen a symphony, and now I'm a part of it as a soloist. It's pretty crazy," Mantla told CBC a few days before the show. "I'm going to be there representing my people, representing the North."

There was a full choir, orchestra, and three soloists narrating.

I hope that this is part of a national awakening to reconciliation.- Brian Current, composer of The River of Light

Brian Current — a Toronto-based, composer and conductor with the Royal Conservatory of Music — composed the music for the performance.

Current said it took five years of hard work leading up to this world premiere.

The concept came from a passage in Dante's Paradiso. Current said he began asking his writer friends across Canada if their cultures describe anything like Dante's vision of the river of light.

The River of Light had a full choir, orchestra, and three soloists narrating. The multi-movement performance held its world premiere in Vancouver on Friday. (Tim Matheson/Vancouver Opera)

"And it turns out many of us do," said Current. "We have this fascination with transfiguration into light." 

Current said he really wanted to include an Indigenous segment in the piece. During his research, he said he fell in love with Van Camp's writing.

With the help of a grant, Current visited the N.W.T., and he met Van Camp and Rosa Mantla, who agreed to help train the choir speak and pronounce phrases in Tlicho. 

"It was eye-opening," said Current, of his experience in the North. His interest in learning more about Indigenous issues started when he composed an opera off Marie Clements's work on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

"We don't know about this in the big cities and we need to be aware of it," said Current. "I hope that this is part of a national awakening to reconciliation."

'What we saw with Mason [Friday] was real courage and real beauty,' says Current, the composer of The River of Light. (Tim Matheson/Vancouver Opera)

'He knocked it out of the park'

Van Camp's writing used in the opera describes the northern lights.

Current said the choir would mirror Mantla's narration by singing Tlicho phrases and words.

"It's kind of crazy to think that these people who have never even spoken Tlicho are singing in Tlicho. So it's kinda crazy we're able to share our culture that way," said Mantla.

"He knocked it out of the park," said Current. "What we saw with Mason [Friday] was real courage and real beauty."

Mantla's grandma, Rosa, was at the premiere, as well as Tlicho drummers and other community members.

"It's quite an honour," said Mantla. 

With files from Lawrence Nayally