It was a historicc moment in Canadian opera when Li Keur: Riel’s Heart of the North was premiered in front of a sold-out audience at Winnepeg’s Centennial Concert Hall in November. Sung in five languages, this Indigenous-led opera celebrates Métis women, culture and famed leader Louis Riel.
Recently named the honorary first premier of Manitoba, Louis Riel is a Métis hero, who fought to preserve the rights and culture of his people, as their lands were increasingly encroached upon by Canadian westward settlers. He led two resistance movements, before being tried as a traitor to Canada and hangedin 1885.
In 1967, the Métis leader was the subject of Louis Riel, considered Canada’s most famous opera. Created by two non-Indigenous individuals, the opera was remounted in 2017 and incorporated more Indigenous perspectives and talent than the original version. Though it was far from being an “Indigenous-led opera,” one performer labeled its performance as a “stepping stone” in the right direction.
Five years later, Li Keur (“the heart” in Michif, the language of the Métis) stands as a sign of the progress Indigenous opera has made. Injected with a $435,000 sponsorship from BMO, the work was written by Métis poet and storyteller Suzanne Steele, Métis fiddler and composer Alex Kusturok, and composer Neil Weisensel.
“I see this project as one of re-placing us into the centre of the big stage where we have been shut out for over 150 years,” Steele said. “I call it ‘Métis-ifying’ the actual art form.”
Li Keur is not a historical recounting of Riel’s life. Instead, it’s a fantastical tale about Métis women, covering various eras and locations. In a sequence set in 19th-century Montana, a Métisse sharpshooter runs into Riel. By highlighting generations of Métis women, Steele hopes to entertain and engage an Indigenous audience.
As a companion piece to Li Keur, Steele established a language database with a team of translators to preserve at-risk languages. This includes Southern Michif (also known as Cree-Michif), French-Michif and Anishinaabemowin, which makes up 70% of the opera’s libretto. (English and French are also present in the production.) The database contains line-by-line translations of the libretto, along with the translators’ audio recordings of the languages.
Theatre, and especially opera, has been experiencing a growing Indigenous presence in recent years. This is reflected, not only in the writers, directors and performers, but also in the style of the stories themselves. In the wake of the Canada Council for the Arts’ $30-million in New Chapter grants, Indigenous artists gained the ability to curate and create their own projects.
Unlike traditional opera, Indigenous opera places a particular emphasis on relationship building. Nicole Stonyk, a PhD student in Indigenous Studies and classical music at the University of Manitoba, claims that there’s an emphasis on “the kinship ties that you’re building within the process.” Canadian opera houses experience unique challenges with presenting Indigenous works. This might involve making more affordable tickets. Or, creating an approachable atmosphere, rather than an intimidating one.
One striking attribute about Indigenous opera since 2017 is a sudden shift away from trauma stories. While traumatic stories may be historically accurate, and important, they place an educational weight upon the shoulders of the artists. Plus, they aren’t necessarily sought by audiences. Today, it’s possible to explore narratives on topics other than tragedy: there are the time-traveling stories of Namwayut and Canoe, the comedic tales of Indians on Vacation, and the spectacle of Li Keur.