Monday, April 27, 2009

NAT: Cree Opera

Tomson Highway's libretto for Cree opera inspired by real life
April, 26, 2009 - 12:13 pm, Ahearn, Victoria - (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

TORONTO - In October 1990, celebrated Cree playwright Tomson Highway lay on a Toronto hospital bed beside his dying brother Rene and held him in his arms. As he fell asleep, he dreamed they were in a boat floating toward an island on a misty waterway.

"On that island, only one of us was allowed to get off and it was him," the writer, who was born near Maria Lake, Man., recalled recently during a telephone interview from his home in the south of France. "I had no choice but to go back to the mainland in that boat by myself."

The dream, which came a few days before his brother's death of meningitis (he also had AIDS), helped inspire Highway's libretto for the Cree opera "Pimooteewin: The Journey" that starts touring northern Ontario on Monday.

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"It comes from reality," Highway, a member of the Order of Canada, said of the story. "It's a very powerful experience and I believe with every ounce of my being that (Rene) is still on that island, which is here, just in a different psychological space.

"I live every single day of my life for him."

Directed and choreographed by Toronto-based performer Michael Greyeyes to the haunting music of Montreal-based composer Melissa Hui, the opera follows two characters traditional to aboriginal mythology - the comical Trickster and the Eagle - as they cross a river on a boat to a magical island inhabited by spirits.

A cast of about 30 - including dancers, a narrator, an orchestra, the Elmer Iseler Singers and soloists Xin Wang (soprano) and Bud Roach (tenor) - perform to Cree lyrics that are translated through surtitles. The choreography and costumes incorporate aboriginal and Japanese cultures.

The opera is said to be the first written in the Cree language.

"This opera could only have occurred in Canada," said Greyeyes, a member of Saskatchewan's Muskeg Lake First Nation. "And the reason why I say that is, it's uniquely Canadian: It involves First Nations culture, it involves numerous communities - music, dance, theatre - and I think the Canadian consciousness has really evolved.

"I think that Canadian audiences are really receptive to the sort of innovations that indigenous artists are interested in pursuing."

Although the story deals with death, it has a light, humorous tone as it celebrates the aboriginal myth that the dead pass into form of energy on Earth, said Highway.

"In aboriginal mythology, there is no heaven and there is no hell," said Highway, who is also a musician and has studied different mythologies for 30 years. "You cross a kind of a River Styx and you go into this region of the human consciousness ... you don't go away."

Highway said Lawrence Cherney, artistic director of production company Soundstreams Canada, first approached him and Hui to do the project about a decade ago at a music conference. Hui felt the melody of the Cree language fit beautifully into the operatic form and Highway agreed because he's always looking for ways to help preserve the Cree language.

With Soundstreams as producer and commissioner, the opera debuted to rave reviews last February over a weekend at Toronto's Jane Mallet Theatre. Its northern Ontario tour, which will hit six regions through May 15, marks its first time on stage since then. Tickets range from just $10 to $20.

The tour will arrive in each city a week early so talent can go into local schools to teach arts workshops to students from Grades 4 through 12 who will also get to see the opera.

Greyeyes said Soundstreams plans to take the tour and outreach program to Western Canada and Quebec next year.

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