RSO celebrates Riel’s legacy

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author: quinn bell | a&c writer

A show to be remembered.  / Archives of Manitoba 

Looking into our cultural heart and soul 

On Saturday night, the Regina Symphony Orchestra premiered a new Canadian production: Riel, Heart of the North. Composed by Neil Weisensel and Dr. Suzanne Steele, Heart of the North is an imaginative (classical) musical interpretation of Louis Riel’s so-called ‘Lost Years’ between 1870-72.  

During those years, Riel is thought to have been hiding out somewhere in today’s North Dakota. There, the Métis President may have become a renowned buffalo hunter, or else acted as a guide for travelling Englishmen. 

Heart of the North shows Riel’s struggles with the Fates, as well as with various powerful and intelligent Métis women. He longs for his homeland and for his people, he longs to remain un homme libre, a free man. Also featured on Saturday was Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. Props to the RSO for their programming. The Sixth, also known as the Pastorale, is a celebration of the country side, just like Riel. Clarinets sound like cuckoo birds, flutes sing like chickadees.  

The Métis opera is very unique in that it blends five languages: French, Saulteaux, English, and two dialects of Michif. Dr. Steele travelled extensively while writing the libretto for the opera, in part in search of inspiration and in part in search of translators who would help her with her work. Travelling across Canada, it was in St. Laurent where she met and collaborated with local Ojibway and Métis communities. Steele cites them as her co-authors for the libretto. 

In making and performing this unique Canadian opera, it is hoped that audiences will again learn to embrace the cultural and linguistic complexity that once thrived here, in a time when English was very much the minority tongue. The syllables and sounds of the Michif and Saulteaux, of the Fransaskois and Francomanitobain, are beautiful. These are functional languages and should be protected for future generations. 

On the topic of future generations, the opera featured another unique and surprising element: a young (and I mean young) Métis fiddler, standing front and centre beside maestro Gordon Gerard and the solo vocalists. He may have had on a nervous grin at first, but he owned the stage when it was his time to play. Not just another symbol for hope in future generations, he was as tangible as he was talented. 

There was also a choir involved in the production. The choir was organized and originally directed by the late and beloved Dr. Dominic Gregorio. Gregorio thoroughly believed in the power of song to bring people together, to heal our relationships with each other, with the past, with the land we live on. The choir, then, made up specifically of Métis, First Nations, Fransaskois, and other singers, was a fitting one to honour Gregorio’s passion and vision. 

The weight of his loss hung as a presence in the room. Tears could be seen on many faces, and I’m certain there were voices in the choir which wavered at times — and understandably so. Also clear in the room, however, was the hope and light that Gregorio put into his music and into each and every choir that he directed. His song will go on. 

 

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