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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Chaakapesh documents an orchestra’s unprecedented journey to the North

BY Patrick Quinn Dec 21, 2019

It was a project of almost unimaginable ambition: a world-class opera sung entirely in Cree, bringing a symphony orchestra to small Indigenous communities in northern Quebec. Even if you weren’t able to attend one of last year’s performances of Chaakapesh: The Trickster’s Quest, a new documentary will give you an intimate look into this unprecedented production.

Chaakapesh directors Roger Frappier and Justin Kingsley follow the project from its fascinating creation process to its triumphant concerts, documenting many charming encounters and enlightening insights along the way. 

Besides the breathtaking music and scenery, viewers are struck by the friendships established between the Indigenous hosts and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) – particularly its conductor, Kent Nagano.  

“The sharing aspect is what all of us will take away as unforgettable,” says Nagano in the film. “Of course, we’re just musicians. But music is a universal communication between the essence of humanity and without communication there can be no hope for reconciliation.”

“Music is a universal communication between the essence of humanity and without communication there can be no hope for reconciliation”

Kent Nagano

Nagano had brought a smaller group of musicians to Nunavik a decade earlier and was eager to return to the region with the OSM and an Indigenous opera. With the help of the Canada Council’s New Chapter grant program, OSM project coordinator Marc Wieser helped make the dream a reality by connecting renowned Cree author Tomson Highway with young Canadian composer Matthew Ricketts. 

“We kind of took a chance,” Wieser told the Nation. “In the film, you see Tomson and Matthew as polar opposites. It was funny to see them come together and the kind of creativity that came out of that friction.”

Highway explained that while the trickster Chaakapesh is prominent in all Canadian Indigenous cultures, for the opera he mixed an Ojibwe legend with the Old Testament story of Jonah and the whale. In the original version, Chaakapesh is swallowed whole by a giant fish in a Lake Superior storm while seeking sturgeon oil for his balding grandmother. He eventually wins a long argument by convincing the sturgeon – who is also God – that we’re here to laugh.

In Highway’s adaptation, the story is transplanted from Lake Superior to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the sturgeon becomes a beluga whale. The god Mantoo needs the reluctant Chaakapesh’s help to teach the murderous Europeans how to laugh. It’s a provocative premise involving much irreverent humour but rendered sublime by baritone Geoffroy Salvas and tenor Owen McCausland, who both learned to sing in Cree for the show. 

“My specialty is transforming trickster stories into modern stories, that relationship between the level of divine and human,” Highway told the Nation. “I take my cue from writers like Homer and the mythology of the Greeks. There’s always that universal tension between humour and tragedy. We will always know death – we can’t escape it.”

Translating the work into five languages involved Cree, Innu, Inuktitut, French and English speakers sitting around a table, striving to balance the story’s humour with cultural respect. Music lovers will particularly treasure rare glimpses into the symphony’s creative process, including Nagano hilariously instructing a percussionist how to sound like a cricket. 

“What I felt was very special and moving about this experience was the process of making music together,” said Nagano. “To realize Chaakapesh, it entailed the participation of everyone, including the communities we visited. With that comes challenges and also the chance to accomplish something that’s never been accomplished before.”

At each of the six Indigenous communities visited, the orchestra was joined by local musicians who performed a solo show within the show. Young Cree cellist Kelly Cooper is filmed receiving a private Bach lesson by an OSM member before performing in Ouje-Bougoumou, the only Chaakapesh concert in Eeyou Istchee. 

When a dramatic tempest caused a total blackout in the region that day, the entire community contributed generators and flashlights so the show could go on. As filmmaker and Nation co-founder Ernest Webb implied in the documentary, there was something fitting about a legend long told in dark teepees presented in such conditions.   

“It’s a deep honour for me to be able to take something from a dark teepee from a few thousand years ago, bring it to Montreal and back home with the symphony,” Webb said in the film. “They’re all coming together to make some magic with a good heart. From what I’ve seen, there is definitely magic in the air.”

Chaakapesh narrators Webb, Florence Vollant and Akinisie Sivuarapik, who translated the story for their respective Cree, Innu and Inuktitut communities, were clearly moved by the experience. Vollant and Sivuarapik also performed music during their shows and spoke at length in the film about the importance of preserving and promoting their languages. 

“One of my favourite scenes is Ernest when he’s not narrating, just looking at people,” co-director Kingsley told the Nation. “He speaks with his face – all the emotions. This is his community. You see the pride unveil itself on his face. You could tell how much it meant to every single one of the people – not just the OSM. You’re going back home.”

“Who knows – maybe on this tour with the OSM, there will be some child whose life will be completely changed from our visit. If we reach just one person, then the tour has been a great success” – Kent Nagano

Kingsley spoke about using the best in Hollywood audio and video technology while maintaining a meditative pace to draw viewers into the story and its compelling characters. He argued it could even be considered an action film “because we have real leaders acting.”

While orchestras are often perceived as rather pompous and exclusive, OSM members are shown giving lessons to village children with great humility and enthusiasm. When kids start throwing popcorn during a performance, Nagano laughingly says it was like this during Mozart’s time. The excitement they bring to the communities is contagious.

However, beneath the humour are dedicated professionals, committed to perfecting the piece until the very last night while adapting to whatever may come. Nagano speaks movingly in Chaakapesh about escaping the boredom of his tiny town through music and the profound impact a visiting symphony orchestra had on his early life. 

“I wonder how many [from that orchestra] realized that one little boy was listening to the Beethoven symphony and had a life change,” Nagano ponders in the film. “Who knows – maybe on this tour with the OSM, there will be some child whose life will be completely changed from our visit. If we reach just one person, then the tour has been a great success.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.