Louis Riel: Replacing the “Kuyas”

In 1967, Mavor Moore and Harry Somers had been commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company to  write an opera for Canada’s Centennial. They chose Louis Riel as a subject, and created a piece that has  been consistently hailed as a work of international stature. 

In 2015, the Canadian Opera Company, eventually joined by the National Arts Centre and Opera  Quebec, asked the estates of Mavor Moore and Harry Somers for rights to mount the opera in 2017 as  part of Canada’s sesquicentennial celebration. 

In the spring of 2017, as preparation for the new production was underway, music professor Dylan  Robinson approached the Canadian Opera Company, to let them know that a piece of music in the  opera, (popularly known as the “Kuyas”), was actually taken from a Nisga’a song, which Harry Somers  had viewed in a recording done by Marius Barbeau early in the 20th century. Specifically, the song  belongs to the House of Sgat’iin, is to be sung only by the head of the House, and marks, among other  things, the spiritual and legal passing along of inheritance. Singing of the song by others, in other  contexts, is an egregious breach, harmful to the singers, to the audience, to the House of Sgat’iin. 

As a result, Professor Robinson organised a meeting, (hosted by and with support from the COC), with a  broad spectrum of concerned parties. Led by representatives of the Nisga’a; G̱oothl Ts’imilx Mike  Dangeli, (Nisga’a, Leader of the Git Hayetsk Dancers), Wal’aks Keane Tait (Nisga’a, Leader of the Kwhlii  Gibaygum Nisg̱a’a Dancers) and Sm Łoodm ‘Nüüsm Dr. Mique’l Dangeli (Tsimshian, Leader of the Git  Hayetsk Dancers); and including other indigenous individuals and groups, as well as the estates of Harry  Somers and Mavor Moore. It was at that meeting that the full nature and importance of the music  became clear to the estates, and it was immediately recognised that something had to be done. 

There was no time to address this issue before the 2017 presentations of the opera, but in the  subsequent months, Professor Robinson spearheaded contact with the Nisga’a Lisims government, and  they made an official request to remove the song.  

Ian Cusson

Demonstrating a passionate commitment to resolve the problem, the COC Artistic Director, Alexander  Neef, offered the physical and financial resources of the COC, with support from the National Arts  Centre, to commission replacement music. In 2019, Ian Cusson, the composer-in-residence at the COC,  and himself Metis, was commissioned to create music to replace the “Kuyas”. At the same time, in  looking through past documents, it was discovered that Moore’s original words for that section of the  opera had not, in fact, been used. According to Moore, Somers was having trouble setting them, time  was getting tight, and Somers asked if they could use the “Kuyas”, a piece he had set independently,  prior to the opera, and plug it in. The replacement, then, (now known as “Dodo, mon tout petit”), can be  seen at least partially as returning to the creators’ original intent. 

The Estates of Harry Somers and Mavor Moore wish to profoundly thank everyone that contributed to  this process, but in particular Dylan Robinson for bringing the information to light, and Alexander Neef  and Ian Cusson, for their extraordinary support. As an example of how to navigate the complex  landscape of addressing similar issues, it’s hoped that others will learn and benefit from this experience.  “Dodo” was birthed out of an urgent desire to make things right, while honouring the original creators’  intent, and we believe it has succeeded magnificently. 

Sincerely, 

The estates of Harry Somers and Mavor Moore

Susannah’s Ain’t it a Pretty Night

Biblical stories have commonly found their way into the performing arts, often taking on the cultural flavour of the time in which they were created. You need look no further than shows like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar or Darren Aronofsky’s film, Noah, for eye opening examples of this. Yet, an intriguing case can be seen in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, a 1950s take on Susannah and the Elders from the Book of Daniel. Floyd transports the story to mid-century Tennessee, offering him the opportunity to capitalize on his gift for Appalachian musical styles. He then wraps the narrative in the social realism of composers like Kurt Weill from the 1930s and 40s. The resulting story maintains the biblical stance against false witness and hypocrisy, but also offers a more realistic account of the human cost concerning uneven, patriarchal power dynamics.

Carlisle Floyd

Unlike most opera composers, Floyd took greater control over the creative process by writing not only the music but the words too! As well as being a composer, Floyd was also a successful playwright, having won acclaim for his literary abilities while still an undergraduate. Floyd’s double duty created a unique consistency between music and lyrics, allowing his deeply emotional voice to tug harder on the hearts on the listeners. Susannah’s fate falls far from the moral righteousness of the original story, and Floyd ensures that this change in tone does not go unnoticed. Susannah’s hardship and unfair rejection by her community shares an eerie familiarity with the fate of Fantine in Les Misérables, albeit with a slightly less tragic ending.

One of the most memorable arias from the show is “Ain’t it a Pretty Night,” sung by Susannah early in the first act. We are thankful to have Saskatoon’s own Danika Lorèn reutrning home to perform this gorgeous song. Lorèn is no stranger to the SSO or our patrons, having most recently appeared as the soprano soloist in our 2019 Messiah concert and as director for our Mozart Reimagined collaboration with the Saskatoon Opera Association. Lorèn’s gift for interpretation makes her the perfect choice to bring this remarkable, hopeful character to life, and her tenacity makes her more than a match for the musical and emotional climaxes in Floyd’s writing.

The aria scene starts with Little Bat McLean, a young man who took a shine to Susannah at a community dance, returning with her to the house that she shares with her older brother, Sam. While they idly chat on the front porch, Susannah begins to exclaim the beauty of the night sky and the world around them, displaying a literal starry-eyed optimism – at one point she describes the sky as “velvet stitched with diamon’s.” She then begins to imagine a future beyond her Appalachian setting, envisioning a life of tall buildings and mail order catalogues. Yet, she does not wish to fully leave Appalachia behind and comforts herself with the notation that she could always return. The aria’s optimistic innocence creates a strong, almost parental bond between the character and the audience that makes Susannah’s ultimate fate all the more agonizing.

This opera is truly a hidden gem of the twentieth century, and we are overjoyed to be sharing a taste of its brilliance with you in this eventful, 91st opening night concert!

One Hand, One Hearty Pair of Overtures

Long before Winnipeg ever faced off against San Jose, the jets and sharks were rumbling in the streets of New York City in Leonard Bernstein’s masterful 1957 musical, West Side Story. Bernstein was one of the most prolific and well-known American composers and conductors of the twentieth century. He found critical acclaim quite young (his mid-twenties!) as the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, an organization with which he would later achieve international fame as its music director. He has left behind an abundance of canonic works, though none have reached the pop cultural status of West Side Story.

West Side Story is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s unforgettable play, Romeo and Juliet, reworked to reflect the gritty reality of 1950s New York. Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets are replaced by the Jets and Sharks gangs, the former the established neighborhood gang, the latter a group of Puerto Rican newcomers. The roles of Romeo and Juliet of replaced by those of Tony and Maria. The largest break from Shakespeare comes in Maria’s survival – she lives to deliver a damning speech to both gangs, decrying their joint responsibility in Tony’s death.

The overture captures some of the most dramatic parts of the show and highlights Bernstein’s incredible integration of dance music. The opening rumble music has a brassy, primal quality to it that initially takes you by surprise! Luckily, Bernstein knows just when to introduce the theme from “Tonight” (the balcony duet music) in the strings to remind you that not everything will be so daunting. Bernstein then transitions to “Maria,” Tony’s hit number from the first act. The melody opens with the infamous tritone (the same two notes that open the Simpsons theme song!), which Bernstein uses thematically throughout the whole show. The end of the section features a stunning horn solo that will surely melt your heart. Following this, Bernstein gives us a taste of the mambo dance music that absolutely steals the first half of the show. The music allows for the combative rivalry between the two gangs to manifest in an all-out dance off to the mambo’s exciting Latin rhythms. The overture progressively builds to a whirlwind finale that will leave you certain that West Side Story will feature at your next family move night!

Bernstein’s other monumental stage work is his comic operatta (little opera) Candide. Though the performance history of the show is littered with rewrites and turnover in the creative team, Candide has remained a staple in opera houses, due largely to Bernstein’s musical brilliance. The story is taken from a book of the same name by the eighteenth-century French philosopher, Voltaire, in which he rebukes the optimism of earlier thinkers. The character of Candide travels around the world before returning to his home and deciding, alongside his love Cunegonde, to take his future happiness into his own hands.

The Candide overture is ingenious for its insertion of thematic snippets into a classic sonata structure. Bernstein opens with a brash fanfare, designed to ensnare the attention of everyone in the hall. He then flies into a run of tunes from the show that are too numerous to list. This jukebox theme is followed by a more lyrical section that features Candide and Cunegonde’s love duet, “Oh Happy We.” This melody beautifully captures the initial optimism and naivete of the lovers and is delightfully playful! After an extended rendition of the duet melody, Bernstein brings in music from what is undoubtedly the most famous song in the whole show, “Glitter and be Gay.” Sung by Cunegonde at the end of act one, the song can be praised equally for its theatricality and vocal acrobatics. The section quoted in the overture is an exuberant display of coloratura (many fast notes in a row), punctuated by jumps up to the stratosphere of the singer’s range. This energy is not lost in the orchestral version and is sure to have your toes tapping by the end. The overture finishes in a truly romantic opera fashion, rising to a cacophony of instrumental bravado. If I may be ‘candide,’ it certainly won’t disappoint!

The Carmen Suites

The two Carmen orchestral suites beautifully capture some of the show’s most memorable moments and bring the drama of the opera stage into the concert hall. Though writing for a Parisian audience, Bizet alluded to the opera’s Spanish setting with inspiration from the unique rhythms found in Spanish dance music. Spain’s musical tradition had its roots in the historical Islamic culture of the country, differentiating it from the musical traditions of other European regions. The Habanera sung by Carmen in the first act is one of the most famous tunes from the show and uses the distinctive rhythmic pulses of the Spanish dance by the same name. The aria has remained popular to this day – no doubt you’ll want to start humming along with the orchestra when they start to play it!

Another exciting Spanish influence comes in the form of Escamillo, the toreador (bullfighter). Bullfighting is a quintessentially Spanish sport, still popular today. Escamillo’s brash character encapsulates the necessary bravado of someone willing to stand their ground against an angry, charging bull. His toast aria is a highlight of the show and as easily recognizable as Carmen’s Habanera. In the suite, a robust trumpet stands in for bombastic baritone voice from the opera.

danika
Danika Loren, soprano

Another highlight, this time for its heartfelt tenderness, is Micaëla’s third act aria, “Je dis que rien ne m’épourante” (I say that nothing frightens me). The melody captures a supple lyricism unique to nineteenth-century French music. Bizet’s mentor, Charles Gounod, was a master of this French lyricism and once joked that Bizet had stolen the music for this aria from him! The SSO is grateful to have the wonderful Danika Lorèn with us to sing this aria. Her powerful yet sensitive soprano brilliantly captures the lyric style and ensures that there will not be a dry eye in the house by the aria’s conclusion.

One of the most important musical themes from the opera is the fate theme. This theme opens the first of the two suites and sets the tone for both the suite and the opera itself. The descending line can be heard throughout the show as an ominous foreshadowing of Carmen’s death at the hands of Don José. The ill-omened tone of this theme is balanced by the serenity of the Intermezzo that follows. A pastoral flute solo lulls the listener to a place a deep contentment before Bizet introduces the Séguedille, another playful Spanish dance that will have you swaying in your seats. After the rhythmic and military “Dragons of Alcala,” taken from the prelude to the third act, the first suite ends with the energetic, circus-like music of the bullring. Though the music is boisterous, it is melancholic to remember that it functions as the sonic backdrop to Carmen’s tragic death.

While the first suite takes most of its movements from Carmen’s intermezzos and preludes, the second suite utilizes music from within the action of the opera itself. The suite opens with a segment entitled “Marche des Contrebaniers” (Smuggler’s March) which evokes the anxious playfulness expected from a group of smugglers. Following this, the listener is treated to orchestral renditions of Carmen’s Habanera, Micaëla’s third act aria, and Escamillo’s toast aria. “La Garde Montante” (The Rising Guard) is taken from the children’s chorus in the opera’s first act. The children sing about imitating the soldiers as the guards change over. The opening trumpet call and the march-like piccolo give the music a distinctly military flavour that, similar to the Smuggler’s march, balances optimism with a nervous energy.
The final movement, “Danse Bohème” (Gypsy Dance), finishes the suite with all the mystique that the name implies. The unexpected volume and melodic changes keep you on your toes and the cryptic oboe solo is delightfully intriguing. The music accelerates its way to a truly climatic finish that will have you on your feet, your heart pumping with courageous energy, ready to hit the dance floor yourself or even try your own luck in Escamillo’s bullring!

Bizet’s Carmen

Georges Bizet’s Carmen is one of the most beloved pieces of theatre in the operatic canon. The story’s exotic locations, which include a Sevillian cigarette factory, a bullring, and a smuggler’s lair, add to the air of mystique and fantasy that has kept audiences spellbound since the opera’s premiere in 1875.

Carmen originally premiered at the Opéra-Comique theatre in Paris, causing quite a stir with its overt sexual themes and tragic ending. Still reeling from the dismal outcome of the Franco-Prussian War, Parisians in the 1870s had a taste for the melancholic and Carmen’s femme fatale character perfectly captured the spirit of the moment. As an opéra comique (a French genre similar to modern musical theatre), Carmen originally consisted of musical numbers interspersed between spoken dialogue. Music was later added to these dialogues by Bizet’s friend, Ernest Guiraud, to fit the standard structure of an opera.

At the time of Carmen’s premiere, Bizet was a struggling up and comer in the French musical landscape. His primary musical influence came from his teacher, Charles Gounod, a composer now fondly remembered for operas like Roméo et Juliette and Faust. From Gounod, Bizet developed an instinctive grasp for the lyrical style unique to France in this period. His experimentalism and eccentrism however are all his own! He sadly never found major success during his own lifetime, hampered by bouts of crippling self-doubt. His tragically young death, aged only 36, further limited his output, the silver lining being his completion of Carmen only three months prior to his death.

The story of Carmen is one of tragic love, jealousy, and unalterable fate. Don José falls for the seductive Carmen, an infatuation that costs him his military commission, his reputation, and eventually his sanity. As he falls deeper under Carmen’s spell, Carmen’s fleeting affections turn more to Escamillo, the bombastic bullfighter. Following a climactic fight between the two suitors, Carmen convinces Don José to leave. At Escamillo’s next bullfight, Don José seeks out Carmen. When she spurns him, he loses control and stabs her. The opera ends with the celebratory music of Escamillo’s victory accompanying the sight of Don José standing over Carmen’s lifeless body. Though this ending is undoubtedly, heartbreakingly tragic, Bizet and his librettists, Meilhac and Halévy, masterfully navigate the emotional topography of the opera, offering up moments of pure joy and elation to balance out the weight of Carmen and Don José’s tragic fate. 

Though Carmen was by far the most successful of Bizet’s operatic creations (it ran for 45 performances in 1875 – 27 more than any of his other shows), it initially failed to invigorate both the audience and the critics. The directors of the theatre had been reluctant to even stage the work because of its risqué nature. It has been suggested that Carmen’s popularity only eventually rose due to a morbid curiosity created around Bizet’s untimely death. Though this is an oversimplification, it is certainly true that the opera experienced a gradual rise in popularity. Egged on by the support of composers such as Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky, within less than ten years it had become a global success and has continued to intrigue and entertain countless generations of audiences into the present day!