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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

PREVIEW | Cree And Sami Culture Meet In Operatic Form In Soundstreams’ Two Odysseys

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on November 6, 2019

Soundstreams explores Indigenous opera by bringing together Cree opera Pimooteewin and Gállábártnit, a new work in Sámi, in Two Odysseys.

Top l-r Heli Huovinen, Michael Greyeyes, Cole Alvis; bottom l-r Yolanda M Bonnell, Asitha Tennekoon
Top l-r Heli Huovinen, Michael Greyeyes, Cole Alvis; bottom l-r Yolanda M Bonnell, Asitha Tennekoon (Photos courtesy of the artists)

Canada always existed as a mix of two contrasting populations: the Indigenous and the newcomers. Ironically, it was the newcomers who imposed brutal rulings over the Indigenous, and the impact of this colonization process has left a deep mark in our heritage. There are many real problems that Indigenous communities continue to face, including basic rights, such as water. However, there are also efforts being made to re-establish and showcase this proud Indigenous heritage within our nation, and after a decade since its premiere in 2008, the first Cree opera, Pimooteewin, is returning to the stage with a new companion opera in Sámi, Gállábártnit in Soundstreams’ Two Odysseys.

The idea of Indigenous opera is an interesting one. “It’s a complicated relationship between the words Indigenous and opera,” says Yolanda Bonnell, narrator of Pimooteewin. “I mean, opera itself is a colonial art, for that was brought to Indigenous lands. It can be a beautiful reclamation of storytelling and a way to experiment with colonial practice in an Indigenous way.” Yolanda is Anishinaabe-Ojibwe and South Asian, from Fort William First Nation near Thunder Bay, Ontario, and she sees the role of narrator in a few different perspectives:

“Narrators are nothing, if not the primary storyteller — the omniscient being that can see into the past, present and future. The narrator (in Pimooteewin) is interesting because she also has the ability to cast the players in the story — there’s some level of orchestration involved as well. And she is the bridge between the witnesses (audience) and the story — the only one who can really see them. And she has a personal stake in this story — the third narrative that threads the two operas together.”

The themes of longing and loss, the ideas around superbeings and creatures that come from the sky, are shared between two stories, and when Yolanda travels to the world of Gállábártnit to meet the Sámi narrator (Heli Huovinen), this third perspective connects the two very different groups. “I balance on the line between a player in the story, and continuing to learn the lesson as the narrator. That’s the interesting thing for me — telling of this third narrative — the journey that my character is on. She doesn’t get what she wants in the first act, so she continues onto the next, to see if she can find it there. It’s a really interesting way of tying the two together,” she says.

When Yolanda crosses into Gállábártnit, she will take us with her to the Sámi world created by librettist Rawdna Carita Eira and composer Britta Byström, into the traditional ways of Sámi — including everyday tasks, Sámi values, and views on spirituality. “In Sámi belief system, we have people who can travel between different spiritual spaces, “says Heli. “They are helpers and healers, and they can get information and messages from spiritual world. This narrator is one of them, and she wants to help some who’s lost — she casts people from Bardo, where she currently is, to tell this story together with her.”

Gállábártnit means bear, but it’s also the name of Sámi ancestors, who were elevated to the heavens after death for their positive reputations built while they lived on earth. There are multiple layers to certain words in certain cultures, and it’s the narrator who will guide us through the overlaps, in this case, about a woman choosing the unknown. Coming from a small village of 600 inhabitants, 300km north of the Arctic Circle, it seems fitting to have Heli flown across the vast northern sky to unfold this adventure.

And what of the bear? The role of Guovžža the Bear is sung by Asitha Tennekoon. When the Bear meets his love-to-become, Áile, the story unfolds, and Asitha weaves another layer into this storytelling — a personal one. “As a South Asian, I think I bring a certain element of understanding with regard to how important it is to celebrate and share stories based in communities not traditionally associated with opera,” she says. “Something I think is an integral step towards keeping opera healthy and relevant.”

On the question why it took so long for us to tell and listen to our own Indigenous stories amongst our own communities, Asitha answers with a hint of caution:

“I think the question (unintentionally) makes it sound like the problem has been solved, whereas I believe we still have a long way to go. The problem I’m alluding to is access. For at least the past couple of centuries, opera has been one of the faces of elitism. As such it has become inaccessible to people and communities who are not traditionally associated with opera. Not only that, it also becomes unapproachable because of the social and economic connotations with which it is associated. It’s a convenient way of keeping opera, and classical music in general, within a protective cocoon, purposely or inadvertently preserving it as the last vestige of a social hierarchy which has no place in 2019.

“So while it is encouraging to see an emphasis being placed on telling the types of stories we’ve been working on in Two Odysseys, their impact will be even stronger when larger companies realize the merits of investing in, and celebrating ALL the cultures which make up the community they are supposed to serve.”

Cole Alvis (ManidoonslemonTree creations) is co-directing TO with Michael Greyeyes, and he is keenly aware of this problem: the exclusion of Indigenous culture, not only in opera, but in Canadian Arts in general, and for him, this production means an important opportunity to create an inclusion. “When Canadian art first defined itself, it did so without Indigenous people in leadership roles. An opportunity this production provides is for opera and classical / contemporary music audiences to witness stories that have been sung here since time immemorial, told by artists from those communities who are still here,” says Cole.

Working on Two Odysseys in a summer workshop
Working on Two Odysseys in a summer workshop (Photo : Lawrence Cherney)

Cole is a Michif (Métis) with Chippewa, Irish, and English heritage from the Turtle Mountains, and he is cognizant of the resilience of both Indigenous culture and people, that despite state sanctioned pressures, the community continues to thrive. “Indigenous peoples have been and continue to tell their stories even when the practice went underground. In 1880 an amendment to the Indian Act that governs Indigenous peoples in Canada criminalized songs and dances,” Cole says. Quoting the Potlatch Ban:

“Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the “Potlatch” or in the Indian dance known as the “Tamanawas” is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable to imprisonment … and any Indian or other person who encourages … an Indian or Indians to get up such a festival or dance, or to celebrate the same, … is guilty of a like offence…”

Cole explains that though this law remained in effect until 1951 with the express intent to assimilate Indigenous peoples, the ceremony is still alive in the communities. “Potlatch ceremonies continue to be practiced by Coastal First Nations, including the Nisga’a and Tsimshian Nations, whose carver Mike Dangeli created the masks for Gállábártnit. Working with the masks has been a delight. We were gifted protocols to care for them and are proud they have joined our team of artists assembled to tell these stories.”

Cole’s favourite moment in TO is when the two women narrators from both stories meet, but the scene is truly bittersweet, as it signifies not only an artistic success, but also is a reminder of the current issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). “The resilience of Indigenous women is how I am alive today and it is powerful to me when the two narrators immediately recognize the strength within each other,” says Cole.

For Bryan Martin, this opportunity to sing as a member of choir has brought the musical joy of both operas, and a chance to immerse himself in true, vibrant individual stories. “It’s true, I’m a white man of a certain age — in fact, the only person on stage older than me is David Fallis (Musical Director)! But we spent a lot of time in this project talking about where we come from, and it’s been fascinating to hear. Some very powerful stories, not all good, but important because they have shaped who we are,” says Bryan.

This effort, to connect everyone to the project, is a rare approach. With these works’ technical demands, especially regarding the languages, the preparation has been a challenge and a highlight for Bryan. “We’ve been really lucky to have Rawdna Carita Eiral and Arlene Caribou to help us, and we also have a recording of Tomson Highway reading Pimooteewin, which has been invaluable,” says Bryan. And when they sang a part of Pimooteewin for Arlene one day, Bryan saw her face, and knew that it would work. “She said she has never heard her language sung so beautifully. That might have been the most satisfying thing I’ve ever experienced.”

How should we go, into this unusual mix of words, Indigenous + opera? “I would suggest that one should remember that this is not storytelling in the way that one might be used to, and that the beauty of stories can be lost in translation,” says Yolanda. Instead of getting caught up in the words, Yolanda proposes that you come, and to understand through feeling as well.

“I mean — we’ve been telling stories for years. I think we just haven’t been given many platforms. For settlers who aren’t interested in a real relationship with Indigenous folks — it’s more digestible for our stories to come from one of their own or told in a colonial format. Then they get to feel good about ‘supporting the Natives.’ That’s what’s marketable, right? Playing to your patrons,” says Yolanda.

“But there has been a dynamic shift in support of Indigenous theatre. We still have a long way to go, but at least now we’re getting more opportunities to tell all kinds of stories. We need to be able to talk about our experiences using our own voices and it doesn’t always have to be about our trauma, because we’re more than that.”

Cole believes that this is the opportunity to showcase Indigenous language, knowledge and technologies to a larger audience. Librettist Tomson Highway once said that, “In Aboriginal mythology, there’s no heaven and there is no hell. You cross a kind of River Styx and you go into this region of the human consciousness.” Perhaps it’s time, for us — whether we’re from here, or have come to be here — to cross the worlds that have been separated for so long and realize that there is no theirs and ours, but that there’s just us — all of us.

It’s time.

“Come for the opera — stay for the Indigenous excellence,” Yolanda says.

Soundstreams, with partners Signal Theatre and the Sámi National Theatre, present Two Odysseys: Pimooteewin/Gállábártnit, November 13 to 17, 2019, Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas St. East, Toronto. Details.

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Hye Won Cecilia Lee
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Hye Won Cecilia Lee

Cecilia tumbled into 'serious' music study when she decided to avoid attending medical school. Currently working in the field of classical music, recording, and Korean-English interpretation, she tends to get her nose dirty in many different things in the city. Cecilia holds a DMA in Piano Performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Hye Won Cecilia Lee
Follow me
Hye Won Cecilia Lee
Follow me

Hye Won Cecilia Lee

Cecilia tumbled into 'serious' music study when she decided to avoid attending medical school. Currently working in the field of classical music, recording, and Korean-English interpretation, she tends to get her nose dirty in many different things in the city. Cecilia holds a DMA in Piano Performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Hye Won Cecilia Lee
Follow me
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