New version of Louis Riel opera emphasizes Indigenous roles and languages

Louis Riel was the first Canadian-written opera mounted by the Canadian Opera Company in 1967. Now, 50 years later, this classic gets a makeover to reflect awareness of Indigenous issues.

50 years after debut, Canadian Opera Company offers 'more perspectives of the story'

Louis Riel 'is a very powerful way to connect with the fluctuating identity of Canada,' says Russell Braun, who plays Riel in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production opening Thursday in Toronto. (Sophie I'anson – coopershoots.com/Canadian Opera Company)

How do you solve a problem like Louis Riel, the opera?

That question preoccupied Peter Hinton as he planned his Canadian Opera Company directorial debut. 

He'd been tasked with remounting the landmark 1967 opera, the first opera written by a Canadian to be presented by the COC, commissioned to celebrate Canada's centennial from composer Harry Somers with libretto by Mavor Moore. Hinton's version opens Thursday in Toronto.

Now, as Canada marks its 150th anniversary in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, depicting the struggle and trial of 19th century Métis leader Louis Riel is more complicated than ever.

"The challenge is immediate because when you try to tell a story like this, which is so central and important to Canada's history with Indigenous peoples, and then do it with an opera which is perhaps the most Eurocentric form ever, there's immediately a tension," he told CBC News.
'As a director I want to bring a varied and diverse group to the fore,' says Peter Hinton, here with assistant director Estelle Shook in a rehearsal. (Sam Gaetz/Canadian Opera Company)

The real Louis Riel, executed in 1885 as a traitor to Canada but now often seen as a Métis hero, has a complicated legacy. He sought to preserve Métis rights and culture as their homelands were progressively encroached on, due to Canada's push toward settlement of the West.

He led two resistance movements — the Red River Rebellion in Manitoba in 1870 and the Northwest Rebellion in Saskatchewan in 1885. Today Manitobans celebrate a statutory holiday in his honour.

Hinton, who describes himself as "a settler person … of white British ancestry," acknowledged that today "if one was to take on or commission or create an opera about Louis Riel there would be Indigenous and Métis involvement in its creation."

But, he says, "the opera was written in its time and is very much an artifact of its time. In remounting it, I wanted to bring in more perspectives of the story."

To accomplish that, Hinton  — who showed strong commitment to Indigenous artists as artistic director of English theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa — revamped rather than simply revived the 50-year-old opera.

Here's what's new

  • A "physical chorus" known as the Land Assembly has been added, consisting of Indigenous performers who never sing or speak, but silently bear witness.
  • A new role called The Folksinger was created to narratively frame the opera, played by actor-musician Jani Lauzon, who is of Métis heritage.
  • A new translation of Cree sections was done by actor Billy Merasty, who is of Cree descent and who plays Chief Poundmaker in the production.
  • Dialogue in Michif, the Métis language, has been added in translation by Métis elder Norman Fleury.
  • Surtitles will be projected in English, French, Cree and Michif.
  • An aria sung in Cree by Marguerite Riel (Louis Riel's wife) with music based on a Nisga'a mourning song that was collected by ethnographers and used in Somers' score is performed by the Canadian Opera Company in acknowledgement of its hereditary rights holders

Unlike in the 1967 production, some of the Indigenous characters will be portrayed by Indigenous performers, including Cree bass-baritone Everett Morrison, who plays Wandering Spirit, and Métis/Saugeen Ojibway opera singer Joanna Burt, who plays Louis Riel's sister Sara.

Louis Riel was executed in 1885. Manitoba has a stautory holiday in his honour in February. (National Archives of Canada)
"I really wanted to be a part of this because I feel as an Indigenous woman I could really bring a lot to the production," Burt told CBC News. 

"Regardless of whether you're First Nations or Métis or Inuit, this story rings true for everybody because it's a story of broken promises and resistance."

The lead roles of Louis Riel and his wife Marguerite, however, will not be played by Indigenous or Métis singers. Louis Riel will be sung by Canada's top baritone Russell Braun, who confided he was more concerned about playing a younger man than he was worried about accusations of cultural appropriation.

"As a performer I constantly play culturally diverse people who I'm not," Braun said. 

This production is 'a stepping stone' to get more Indigenous people interested in opera, says Jani Lauzon. She plays The Folksinger, here with Russell Braun as Louis Riel. (Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Company)
"Any role in the operatic repertoire, to which this belongs, can be sung by any culture, any heritage, any previous geographic or historical experience. So I have to admit I didn't doubt that I myself would be able to embody his spirit."

That casting has caused some commentary from Indigenous observers and theatre artists.

Vancouver-based writer-director-performer Corey Payette is of Oji-Cree heritage from Northern Ontario. His new musical Children of God will premiere in Vancouver in May, and then be presented at the National Arts Centre at the same time that Louis Riel plays there.

"That rationale of trying to say that there aren't the performers out there or there aren't people that can perform at the calibre of the National Arts Centre, we know that to not be true anymore," he said, citing his own production, which features seven Indigenous actor-singer-dancers.

"It was never true but now we know there are those performers out there and that they can have the space to tell their own stories."

He believes that until there is more Indigenous leadership in Canadian performing arts institutions, Indigenous people may not be cast in Indigenous roles. But he notes happily that the National Arts Centre will launch its Indigenous Theatre department in 2019.

'This production means a lot to me as a First Nations woman,' says Joanna Burt, who plays Sara Riel opposite Russell Braun as Louis Riel. (Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Company)
Jani Lauzon, who plays a new and pivotal role in this version of Louis Riel, says the situation isn't perfect, but she signed on since she trusted Hinton's track record and vision.

"A perfect situation to me for a celebration of Canada 150 would have been for the COC to hire an Indigenous composer to create a new opera from an Indigenous perspective," she said.

"But I see this as a stepping stone. This is an opportunity for the COC, the COC audiences — the people who normally come to the productions — to have an opportunity to see a different perspective."

She hopes it may lead to the Canadian Opera Company and other organizations creating a support structure to encourage more Indigenous people to consider opera as a career, while giving the audience a new way to think about an important episode in Canadian history they may have learned about in school.

"I'm hoping if anything it offers the audience an opportunity to go, 'I want to back and relearn the history I thought I knew.'"

Louis Riel will be performed by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto from Thursday to May 13, and by the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on June 15 and 17.
Bernard Turgeon plays Louis Riel in the 1969 CBC-TV production of Louis Riel, based on the original 1967 opera. (Paul Smith/CBC)


Nigel Hunt

Arts producer

Nigel Hunt is a longtime CBC News producer covering the arts beat. Previously, he served as a magazine writer and editor.