This unique Indigenous/Western hybrid pushes the boundaries of classical music, while making for a most satisfying theatrical experience.
Soundstreams, Sami National Theatre Beaivvas & Signal Theatre/Two Odysseys: Pimooteewin/Gallabartnit, music by Melissa Hui, libretto by Tomson Highway/music by Britta Bystrom, libretto by Rawdna Carita Eira, co-directed by Cole Alvis and Michael Greyeyes, Ada Slaight Hall, Daniels Spectrum, Nov. 13 to 17. Tickets available at rcmusic.com/tickets.
When they come to write the history of Canadian culture in the 20th and 21st centuries, a significant number of chapters will certainly be devoted to the Indigenous performing arts. The fusion of traditional Indigenous forms with European genres is now firmly entrenched in mainstream culture.
A case in point is Two Odysseys: Pimooteewin/Gallabartnit where ancient myths have been fashioned into operas, and are performed in the original Indigenous languages (with surtitles). This unique Indigenous/Western hybrid pushes the boundaries of classical music, while making for a most satisfying theatrical experience.
Pimooteewin is rooted in the Cree culture of librettist Tomson Highway, while Gallabartnit’s text, written by Norwegian Rawdna Carita Eira, is a myth of the Sami people who inhabit the Arctic rim of the Nordic nations. While both librettists are Indigenous, the composers, Melissa Hui and Swedish Britta Bystrom, respectively, are not. Collectively, however, they represent the exciting collaborations that are producing such a wealth of new music theatre. The clever pairing of a Canadian work with one from Scandinavia allows the audience to experience both the commonalities of two different Indigenous traditions, including their rich history of storytelling and use of masks.
Pimooteewin had a successful premiere in 2008, while Gallabartnit, which was specifically commissioned to be a companion piece for the Cree opera, is receiving its world premiere. The cast and creative team include both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, which reflect the hybrid/fusion nature of the undertaking.
The Cree myth is about the journey that Weesageechak, the coyote trickster (tenor Bud Roach), and his friend Misigoo, the eagle (soprano Melody Courage), take to the land of the dead to bring the departed spirits back to the land of the living. The Sami story is about Aile (Courage again), the beautiful village girl who is also the morning star. She is lured away by Guovzza, the bear (tenor Asitha Tennekoon). Theirs is a happy union that produces three Bear Sons, but when Aile returns to her people for a visit, she is branded a betrayer because her leaving meant the loss of light. There is a darkness to both stories and both their resolutions are tinged with sadness.
Each work contains a narrator, Yolanda Bonnell in Pimooteewin, and Finnish Heli Huovinen in Gallabartnit. Bonnell’s role has been given more depth since 2008. Then it was straight narration, but here she explains she is one of the disappeared ones, anchoring her squarely among the far too many missing and murdered Indigenous women. This adds a poignancy to Weesageechak’s journey to bring back the dead.
Co-directors Cole Alvis and Michael Greyeyes have cleverly linked the two operas by having Bonnell become the listener to whom Huovinen tells Aile’s story. Bonnell also transform into one of the Bear Sons, and so the two myths are linked by Bonnell’s participation. She might long to return to the land of the living, but as the Bear Son in Gallabartnit, she has clearly joined the spirit world.
Because the two works were designed to be a double bill, the musical forces are relatively the same, and include an excellent fifteen-member chorus and an eight-member ensemble, both under the very capable hands of music director David Fallis. The latter’s talents do traverse the centuries, from early to contemporary music, but I’m convinced that it is Fallis’ expertise in the choral traditions of earlier centuries that produced a chorus capable of such glorious shimmering sounds.
The music for both works, while modernist in style, is actually quite different in feel, although they both have major roles for the chorus. The more lyrical Pimooteewin is a lament, a threnody, and composer Hui uses the chorus to convey the haunting, ethereal voices of the dead. The dreamy harmonies she has written are simply beautiful. There is a gentle, even unhurried quality to the score, as marked by a steady muted drumbeat. The solos are still melodic if a little more discordant than the chorus music. Hui does break out with a pronounced, heavier sound for the dance music for the spirits, but she reverts back to the lyrical for most of the opera. In terms of totality, Pimooteewin mesmerizes the ear, if one can say that.
Gallabartnit, in contrast, has a more vital, dynamic and brighter sound because a piano figures prominently in the ensemble. While Hui’s score is more of an accompaniment throughline, Bystrom uses the music for effect, such as sawing arpeggios, crashing chords, and rising crescendos. There is a jagged, staccato quality that suits the edginess of the story. The chorus also has a more traditional, operatic role; for example, they are villagers, and Bystrom has composed some nasty music for them as they attack Aile for being a traitor.
The solos are lyrical, if on the discordant side. If Pimooteewin is more mood and colour, Gallabartnit has more of a narrative structure, but the two pieces certainly go well together. The chorus in both is wonderful, and both tenors display attractive, clear voices. For my taste, soprano Courage tends to be on the shrill side, with a quavering vibrato that verges on unpleasant.
The co-directors have opted for simplicity. The ensemble is on a raised platform in front of the surtitle screen at the back of the stage. Three dancers (Samantha Brown, Vienna Hehir and Joelle Peters) manoeuvre or wear the masks in both pieces, handle props in general such as the long blue cloth representing the river, and become characters when needed.
I’m disappointed with the dancing spirits in Pimooteewin because they just move around with ill-defined, wild abandon. Greyeyes is capable of more imaginative dance movement than that. How to get Bonnell off-stage at the end of Pimooteewin needs work. Her just walking off is a whimper, not a bang.
The integration of the chorus in both works is interesting. For the most part, they are split into two groups, standing behind music stands on both sides of the stage, but they do engage in activity from time to time, such as welcoming Aile back to the village.
Except for the librettist and composer of Gallabartnit, the creative team for Two Odysseys is Canadian, and the visual aspects are very strong, including Shawn Kerwin’s costumes and Teresa Przybylski’s props (Pimooteewin), Isidra Cruz’s costumes and Mike Dangeli’s masks (Gallabartnit), and Melissa Joakim’s lighting for both works.
Two Odysseys is going to be touring abroad, and it will represent the country very well. The two operas together make for an excellent and thoughtful evening of music theatre.