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THE SCOOP | Canadian Opera Company & National Arts Centre Commission New Opera ‘Empire Of Wild’ From Ian Cusson & Cherie Dimaline

By Anya Wassenberg on October 3, 2023

L: Ian Cusson; R: Cherie Dimaline (Photos courtesy of the artists)
L: Ian Cusson; R: Cherie Dimaline (Photos courtesy of the artists)

A new Indigenous-led opera based on a best-selling novel has been officially commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and National Arts Centre (NAC). Empire of Wild will be composed by Ian Cusson with librettist Cherie Dimaline, based on a story about the Georgian Bay Métis community.

“I am thrilled to be partnering with the National Arts Centre in the creation of this important, contemporary opera,” says COC General Director Perryn Leech. “Empire of Wild embodies years of community-rooted work that the Canadian Opera Company has been doing through regular discourse with its Circle of Artists, and marks a tangible response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 Calls to Action. With this commission, we’re continuing our commitment to Indigenous representation by bringing a collaborative focus to the creation of opera that reflects a wider range of perspectives and lived experiences. We are proud to support the artistic leadership of some of Canada’s most prominent Indigenous directors, designers, composers, and stage crew.”

The Opera

Both composer Ian Cusson and librettist Cherie Dimaline have roots in the Georgian Bay Métis Community where the story takes place. Empire of Wild will be sung in English and French. The premiere will take place during a Canadian Opera Company season, with dates and details to be announced as they take shape.

Empire of Wild retells the traditional Métis story of the werewolf-like Rogarou. In the novel, Joan searches for her missing husband Victor, but when she finds him at a revival-style preacher’s tent, he’s forgotten who he is. Can she solve the mystery of his disappearance/reappearance and identity?

The 2019 novel was an instant Canadian bestseller, and combines elements of the supernatural and folklore in a contemporary setting.

“With Empire of Wild, audiences are in for an evening of music and drama that celebrates everything we love about historic opera while pushing the boundaries of what the art form can say,” says Ian Cusson in a statement.

“It is especially fitting that during a week where we honour a national commitment to truth and reconciliation that the COC and NAC are announcing this major investment in Indigenous-led, mainstage work. Significant collaborations like this form the bold new future of opera, and I am thrilled to create it with two companies that are leading that charge.”

L: Ian Cusson; R: Cherie Dimaline (Photos courtesy of the artists)
L: Ian Cusson; R: Cherie Dimaline (Photos courtesy of the artists)

Ian was named Composer-in-Residence for the Canadian Opera Company in 2019 and Carrefour Composer for the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) in 2017. His recent work includes the well received Of the Sea (2023) with Tapestry Opera and Obsidian Theatre, with librettist Kanika Ambrose, and a new Act Three aria, commissioned by the COC and NAC, for the 1967 opera Louis Riel. Cusson’s new music replaced sacred laments of the Nisga’a First Nation, which had been used without permission.

“To be back at the Canadian Opera Company and the National Arts Centre feels like coming home — and getting to work with the stellar COC Orchestra and Chorus, NACO, and NAC Indigenous Theatre on a project of this scale is a dream come true,” continues Cusson. “I’m also thrilled to be working with Cherie, one of the most exciting and celebrated writers of our day. We both also happen to come from the Georgian Bay Metis community, and Empire of Wild takes place on land that our families have lived and died on for generations. Having this level of connection is beyond unique in the operatic collaborative process.”

Librettist Cherie Dimaline is a best-selling author known in particular for her imaginative YA novels. Her 2017 book, The Marrow Thieves, won the Governor’s General Award and the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers.

“Adapting this book for the Canadian Opera Company and National Arts Centre stage, in anticipation of all the incredible talents who will help give it new life, is not merely a retelling, but rather a reimagining,” says Dimaline. “I could not think of a more beautiful art form than opera to pull forward the underlying complexities and aching romance of Empire of Wild.”

“It’s such a gift to work with Ian on this project,” continues Dimaline. “He brings so much experience and expertise to the project, along with an intimate connection to the story itself. Co-creating with somebody who shares ancestral ties to a uniquely beautiful, deeply spooky land is the experience of a lifetime.”

Final Words

“It brings me immense pleasure to welcome Ian Cusson back to the COC as composer of this new opera, and I want to extend an especially warm welcome to Cherie Dimaline, joining us as librettist,” continues Leech. “The combined creativity of this pairing is simply off the charts and I look forward to seeing their artistic vision brought to life.”

“The NAC is incredibly proud to co-commission Empire of Wild with the Canadian Opera Company,” says Christopher Deacon, President and CEO of the National Arts Centre. “Over the years, we have collaborated extensively with Ian and are now delighted to be working with Cherie in reimagining this story for the stage. I cannot think of a better way to spotlight Indigenous artistry than having our two organizations come together in support of this project, and I look forward to bringing this unique opera to audiences.”


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