A Young Person’s Guide to Harry Somers’ Louis Riel with COC’s Katherine Semcesen

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Katherine Semcesen, Associate Director of Education and Outreach, COC

It’s been nearly 50 years since Louis Riel last saw the professional stage. And clearly, it’s about time.

Commissioned in 1967 by the Floyd S. Chalmers Foundation to commemorate Canada’s centennial, Harry Somer’s opera Louis Riel is considered Canada’s most significant contribution to the operatic canon. Even so, it has been considered a product of its time, and has not been produced by a major opera house since its premiere at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre by the Canadian Opera Company (COC).

For this reason, the COC’s 2017 revival, co-produced with Canada’s National Arts Centre, has been keenly anticipated since it was announced last year – and the all-Canadian production, currently running in Toronto, has been lauded by critics and embraced by audiences. This success rests largely with the creative vision of director Peter Hinton, who has interpreted the opera through the values of contemporary Canadian society and with a cultural relevance born of Truth and Reconciliation along with his longstanding relationships with First Nations and Métis artists – all while preserving the musical intention of the original composition.

So why Louis Riel, and why now? A revival in honour of Canada’s Sesquicentennial is the most obvious answer, but there is much more. Louis Riel remains an historical riddle, revered and misunderstood. Young students formally encounter this idealistic man with his convictions and contradictions in grade 8 History class. And depending on who authored their textbook – and when – they meet a very different  man. It’s an enigma, wrapped in an opera, shrouded in history. And that begs a question – or rather several questions, which I posed to Katherine Semcesen, COC’s Associate Director, Education and Outreach at the company’s offices on an April afternoon.

I feel like I’m living in a world of creativity and exploration all day long with this piece, and I don’t get that with most operas,” she muses. “Louis Riel has occupied the most of my time and my brain space. And I feel like I am still just scratching the surface.” And she is not alone: Louis Riel has inspired an evocative learning atmosphere within the company. “We have all been learning things,” she remarks. “I’m going to go upstairs, and there’s going to be something new, some new revision or something new to pass on.” In this spirit, we have taken our curiosities and curated our questions to create this “Young Person’s Guide to Louis Riel” – in the hope that it catalyzes a desire to experience the opera, and – through it – gain insight into the man and appreciation for the artform.

  1. Why might Louis Riel be an especially good introduction to opera for young audiences?

Opera encompasses all the magic that one can find in every single art form, where you have a chance to explore fascinating music, high-stakes drama, compelling designs and visual arts. The best part about Louis Riel is how the opera is specifically being treated by director Peter Hinton and the creative team. That is really what is making a difference to this piece.

Since it’s being presented in 2017, the opera production itself is . . . a great introduction to opera for young people because it is touching upon themes, topics and questions that are circulating in society today. That is the magic of Louis Riel. This production really connects to all the contemporary discussions that we are having about relations in Canada, and it’s being treated in an artistic way. . . .We are not modifying any intention of the (original) piece. We are not recomposing sections; the music is Harry Somers’ music. But how some of the text is being delivered, who is delivering it, the language, the staging of it… all those aspects are being explored. That makes it a living and breathing piece, and that will translate to young people when they see this production.

By no means is this production an autobiography or definitive story of Louis Riel. It is an artistic representation of all of the tensions associated with the man, the people and the politics of that time. To me, all of those aspects come together quite brilliantly, and young people have the chance to feel this, hear this and see this happen on stage. And I think all together – the story, the tensions, the relevance – will make it a really unique experience for young people.

  1. According to the press release, Louis Riel is both an “epic presentation of an intensely contentious moment in Canada’s political history…while also being a landmark work in the canon of Canadian opera.” What should we understand, and look and listen for, in order to be able to appreciate both the history the opera is based on, and its importance as opera?

Peter Barrett as Col. Garnet Wolseley, James Westman as Sir John A. Macdonald, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure as Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Alain Coulombe as Bishop Taché in the COC’s 2017 production of Louis Riel. Photo: Michael Cooper

A story that Peter Hinton conveyed to us in our concept discussion was that Harry Somers and the librettist Mavor Moore were commissioned by a foundation to write an opera to commemorate (Canada’s) Centennial in 1967, and they chose to write about Louis Riel. So in a commissioning process, having the liberty to make that choice of what they would want to write about, they could have written about anything. They could have written about celebrating Sir John A. MacDonald’s extension of the railroad to the west. They could have written about any point in Canadian history, and instead of choosing something easily identifiable as being really celebratory and a good pat on the back, they went back to a part of Canadian history that was incredibly contentious and still in 1967 continued to be contentious, and they raised the story of Louis Riel. Artistically, they saw opera as an interesting medium to present all of those tensions. So walking in there knowing that this was a choice of two people to raise something that was really dark and horrible and unresolved in Canadian history during a time of celebration was a pretty bold move.

And also a bold move because Harry Somers and Mavor Moore are from an European background, so going back to its beginnings, this is an opera about tensions. What’s really important, as I mentioned before, is that this is not a definitive autobiography of Louis Riel. There’s no claim that every single aspect of what we’re presenting is an accurate portrayal of history, so that is the first thing that people need to understand. There are liberties taken by the composer and the librettist, and again, there are liberties taken by Peter Hinton and the creative team to actually go back and dig through some of the history, and maybe bring some accuracies to some inaccuracies and sometimes look at some aspects of the opera, and treat it with 2017 perspectives and values. I think to really dive into the history and walking in with that knowledge is really important.

The word ‘tension’ always comes to mind with this production and with Louis Riel the man. Not only did he have a connection to First Nations traditions; he had a connection to French traditions. He also had a connection to English traditions. He was Catholic. So he himself embodied all the tensions that were actually happening in the Canadian political climate in society of that time. This opera explores all those tensions within the man.

  1. Director Peter Hinton has commented that his vision will preserve “the intentions of the piece…while allowing for the introduction of voices that have not been heard before.” How will this be done, and how can we recognize it?

Jani Lauzon as The Folksinger & Russell Braun as Louis Riel in COC’s 2017 production of Louis Riel. Photo: Michael Cooper

When Peter Hinton first started researching this piece, he started to connect with his contacts in the First Nations and Métis communities to seek their guidance and their wisdom on how to approach certain things. Someone mentioned to him to think about Louis Riel not as an opera filled with music but where there are silences, where there are voices not heard. He said that really struck him and shaped part of his vision. He realized that in the opera, all the characters like Sir John A. MacDonald, Louis Riel, Poundmaker, Dumont, Thomas Scott, the key players in history, they all had lines written for them. Who really was not represented on that stage in an authentic way were the Métis and First Nations peoples. So he really thought about how to authentically welcome, bring in, and ensure that First Nations and Métis peoples have a voice in this production. And a voice doesn’t necessarily mean a singing voice or writing in new parts for them but how they could be present.

And so he made them ever-present in this production by creating this concept of a silent chorus. I think it’s so profound, the word ‘silent’ chorus. It’s like an oxymoron. A chorus is loud. A chorus makes noise. A chorus is an abundance. But silence is eloquent. Silence can be very oppressive, as well, but it can also be power. His choice to show First Nations and Métis voice by having it silenced throughout the opera is incredibly powerful. The new chorus, the silent chorus, is called the Land Assembly.

Peter Hinton and (assistant director) Estelle Shook have gathered a group of First Nations and Métis peoples from all different walks of life (the youngest is 7 years old), and they are staged to be present for the entire opera, always on stage in some capacity. They are the first people we greet, encounter, confront as audience members on stage. Again, that placement of the Land Assembly is brilliant because you don’t encounter an opera singer first; you don’t encounter the people who you would normally encounter on an operatic stage. You encounter First Nations and Métis peoples who are from our own society. And they are staged in a way that they are themselves on stage. And then the story begins.

There are also certain roles that Jani Lauzon, a Métis artist, has taken on. She is performing several small roles throughout the entire piece, and she’s performing in her own voice. She is not an opera singer. Her voice is powerful, magical, and incredibly moving to hear on a professional stage.

  1. Louis Riel contains a variety of perspectives: the colonial settlers and the Indigenous peoples, all being presented through an European artform. How does the opera address this inherent tension?

The first thing is, it is a western art form, so the music will be a very contemporary Canadian art form and with an European tradition behind it. The music that is in the piece is not representative of Métis music. It’s a story of Louis Riel, and the traditional Métis music was not the basis. Harry Somers and Mavor Moore did try to bring in influences of rhythms of Métis music into it, but it’s not a direct translation of it. The music is heavily percussive. It’s very rhythmical. Sometimes the singers are at odds with what’s being done in the orchestra – a real tension between the melody and what’s being sung and what’s being played in the orchestra.

(l-r) Clarence Frazer as James Isbister, Bruno Roy as Louis Schmidt, Billy Merasty as Poundmaker, Andrew Haji as Gabriel Dumont, Russell Braun as Louis Riel and Simone Osborne as Marguerite Riel in the COC’s 2017 production of Louis Riel. Photo: Michael Cooper

Then there are beautiful moments of  a capella. You don’t really hear large chunks of music performed a capella in opera. There’s this moment that runs for eight minutes or so where Russell (Braun) is singing on his own on stage. That’s really interesting because it’s Russell, and he’s playing Louis Riel. He has a moment to perform and sing without the orchestra being present, but the music itself is written in a very European-centric way.

The Land Assembly is another example. The Land Assembly is ever-present on stage. They are one of 3 choruses. The COC Chorus acts as the Parliamentary Chorus in the story, and they represent the people in Parliament, the people who are supporters of Sir John A. MacDonald. They’re the ones in the courtroom yelling, ‘hang him! Everything he says is rubbish.’ They comment on the action, but they don’t drive it forward.

And this is in direct opposition of the Land Assembly, who is silent, almost in defiance, and ever-present. So there is an aural tension because you can hear the COC Chorus singing, and then you don’t hear the Land Assembly sing. Visibly, as well, you see this mass of people singing and moving their mouths and really acting out their words, but the Land Assembly is very methodical, very elegant. They are united. Most of their movements are very similar in style. They are gentle but strong. So having that visual will really speak to (the tension). There are so many, but the music and the land assembly – the physical chorus, the representation of the chorus – are the two main ways that are physical and constant and easy to catch in the entire piece.

  1. What components of Louis Riel set it apart from other operas? What excites you?

The Canadian Opera Company has been the only professional opera company to produce this piece since 1967. In 1975, it was toured to Washington, and UBC and McGill have done productions, so it is not an opera that has been produced very often. So it is such a landmark work in that it really hasn’t been done on the grand scale of a major opera house since 1967.

Russell Braun as Louis Riel (centre) in a scene from the COC’s 2017 production of Louis Riel. Photo: Michael Cooper

So bringing it back and bringing it back in 2017, we’re treating it almost like a world premiere, approaching this opera like one would The Magic Flute or any previous opera that has been presented before, coming in with the excitement that this is not the Louis Riel of 1967. This is the Louis Riel of 2017. And that is really exciting for young people to tap into because they’re getting something that’s fresh, that’s contemporary, and that will challenge some learning they might have had and raise some questions.

Also, the complexity of the music is quite challenging for the singers. The music is really hard to memorize, and there is a lot of text. There may be moments when the singers have moments of improvisation. They will get a very ‘live’ experience, and I think that students will feel that. Every single night and every single performance, there will be a different feeling because of what the artists are bringing into the room with them that day. There won’t be any toe-tappers, but there is some very compelling music that I think will move young people. They might not walk out singing it, but they will be able to connect to it very easily.

I can’t wait to see this production – how it comes together and how all the artists collaborate together on stage. Every moment, there will be some synergy. Having the aspects that Peter has brought into his vision…he’s finding really interesting, compelling ways to bring in the voices and people who haven’t been welcomed into this art form in the same way before. There have been lots of challenges along the way, lots of great learning, lots of new relationships built, lots of relationships that are still being explored and discussed, and it’s all because of Peter’s vision. I really do think that he took to this very seriously, with great sensitivity, and wanted to do as much as he could to connect it to 2017 values and implications. He spent a lot of time with it, deliberating…and I’m really thrilled that he took it on, with his experience, his background and profound respect for First Nations and Métis peoples.

  1. Did the performers need any special training in order to convey the language, themes and mood of this piece?

There would have been no special training beyond what is normally part of the rehearsal process. For the singers, dancer and actors that have been cast in the production, there is the training and study that goes into being an opera singer or performer of any art form. In particular for Louis Riel, where there is material sung and spoken in multiple languages (English, French, Cree and Michif), there are language coaches on staff to ensure that everything is sung/spoken properly.

  1. How could experiencing this part of Canadian history as an opera complement and enrich what is taught in the classroom?

That is really a compelling piece for me. There’s a couple of points addressed in the grade 6 curriculum where they touch upon it, but it’s really in the grade 8 curriculum when they start learning about the Battle of Batoche and Louis Riel…And what better way to experience the learning than seeing it happen and unfold on stage with text end music?

(centre) Justin Many Fingers (Mii-Sum-Ma-Nis-Kim) as The Buffalo Dancer in a scene from the COC’s 2017 production of Louis Riel. Photo: Michael Cooper

I’m always in favor exploring a work, a moment of history through multiple channels because, through every different medium, you’ll learn something new about that particular thing that you were studying. It’s a different perspective. There’s a different feeling about it, a different experience every time. So as an educator, I would also be compelled to bring my students to see something that I might be teaching in school and see it transpire up on a stage and then using what you see to ask questions, to reflect on some of the learning:

  • What was similar?
  • What was different?
  • How was this person portrayed in the opera versus some of the tools that we’ve been using in our classroom studies?
  • Where do they intersect?
  • Musically, if you were to set your own portion of the story you are learning in history to music, what might you have incorporated?
  • What sounds might be happening when Louis Riel and the Métis peoples were going through this?
  • What did the world look like back then? What were the colors? What were the textures?

By seeing it and hearing it on stage, you could start unpacking other questions that a textbook or an online resource might not prompt you to ask. So I think it’s a great opportunity, especially something like Louis Riel because there aren’t that many presentations being done about it. And grade 8 students can handle this tension and the controversy that this story brings forth. It would be a really interesting opportunity for teachers to bring their students.

News You Can Use

Members of the Land Assembly in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2017 production of Louis Riel. Photo: Michael Cooper

What: Louis Riel, a Canadian Opera Company and Canada’s National Arts Centre co-production

  • By Harry Somers; libretto by Mavor Moore with the collaboration of Jacques Languirand
  • Conductor: Johannes Debus
  • Director: Peter Hinton
  • Assistant Director: Estelle Shook
  • Choreographer: Santee Smith

Sung in English, French, Michif, and Cree with English, French, Michif and Cree SURTITLES™

When and Where:

  • On stage until May 13, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, ON
  • June 15 and 17, 2017 at Canada’s National Arts Centre, 1 Elgin St, Ottawa, ON, part of the Canada Scene Festival

Explore and Learn: COC.ca and view a clip of the COC’s 1969 televised production for CBC with Bernard Turgeon in the title role 

© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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