etched in steel(e) Dr. Suzanne M. Steele — editor analyst writer researcher

Occasional Thoughts

reviews, short essays, and musings

Reviewing Li Keur (or BIPOC Opera): To Say or Not To Say, What is a Reviewer To Do?!!

December 7, 2023

After the second performance of our opera, Li Keur, Riel’s Heart of the North (Manitoba Opera, November 2023), I was approached by an audience member who was interested in talking about what they had seen, and their response to it. A highly trained classical musician, a Black person working in a very non-BIPOC classical music world, they saw the show twice and reported: ‘I didn’t understand all I was looking at, but I didn’t need to … I sat near a bunch of Métis and they were laughing and crying and clapping and hooting, and I thought: this is a really different way of opera, I don’t exactly know WHAT or WHY but it’s something really different.” His white colleague, he told me, was not quite as intrigued.

Another comment reported to me by a Métis member of the audience, was that a friend from southern Ontario, whom she had brought to Li Keur, felt ‘left out’ because they didn’t ‘get it all’, and that ‘maybe you have to be “Manitoban” to enjoy Li Keur.’ And then another comment came from an Anishinaabeg woman who wrote that she had wept through the entire second half of the program not only because she was able to understand the Anishinaabemowin spoken and sung perfectly by our performers (kudos to our Knowledge Keepers who coached our singers and to our singers), but also because all she could think about was how her grandparents and parents were told not to speak their language, and were punished for speaking their language, and here it was being sung by gorgeous voices (mezzo Rebecca Cuddy and soprano Keely McPeek) on the big stage at the heart of the continent in her lifetime. Indeed, in an article in the Winnipeg Free Press, a day ahead of the premiere, the Anishinaabemowin translator, Debra Beach Ducharme was quoted as saying that she and her people had felt at one time that ‘our language must not be good [otherwise why were they not allowed to use it] and so we didn’t use it’ (and I paraphrase with apologies). After the premiere she came to me and said, ‘Suzanne, you are saving our language’, to which I responded, ‘No, YOU are saving your language, I’m only finding a little space for it in an unusual place’ (and again I paraphrase what I told her).

Another comment came from Virginia Durkson, an editor colleague of mine who saw the first iterations of a script back in 2018. A non-Indigenous audience member, she told me that she too laughed and cried and hooted along with the audience during the opera. She noted that, ‘The thread of faith throughout was inspiring and bold in character, just as I imagined Riel ought to be’; this is in reference to the mystical Indigenous-infused Christianity that I wrote to be sung by the Riel/Robideau character, and the many references to Our Creator, Manitoo, particularly by the Anishinaabek Medicine Keeper, Marie Serpent who sings:

Onji Manitoo kitigewaa nan, asaama, giizhik, wiingash, mashkodewashk/ Bindaakoojigen/    Jaagizan kaa kin aa gaawe ji gun, Jaagizan kaa kin aa zhiigendaa goo si win oo chi aking.

[From Creator’s garden from this sacred tobacco, cedar, sweetgrass, and sage/Make offering of tobacco/Burn all jealousy, hatred from this earth]

            ~ Translations by Donna Beach and Debra Beach-Ducharme

As I reflect upon so many comments and responses to Li Keur, and indeed they are still coming in, I thought about all the amazing operas I listened to as a child on the Texaco Saturday Afternoon at the Metropolitan Opera program on CBC. Our family had little disposable income for anything other than dentists, shoes, clothing, food, and certainly not for the theatre. (An aside, as for private music lessons, I had my first private music lesson at music school in university, and there were absolutely no visits to the opera!) But we did have the radio, and every Saturday the opera blared from every radio in the household, or the car if we were going somewhere. I loved listening to the synopsis of the plots even though I inevitably got lost following who was doing what to whom and why, and frequently pondered as to how is it that the father figure is always so evil etc. etc.! (Spoiler alert, the father in Li Keur is nothing to write home about, although the singing of bass David Watson is a truly fantastic thing!)

Well, a review of Li Keur came in after opening night, and it is really lovely to receive reviews that describe one’s work as Holly Harris does: “Steele’s lexicon is unabashedly poetic, conjuring evocative images such as windflowers scattering in the wind as a metaphor for Métis peoples forced to disperse throughout the diaspora …” and, “There are many compelling moments ringing with truth in this show, its cast of characters brought to life by singers, actors, dancers and musicians who have these stories in their blood and bones.” But I thought I might offer a little insight into the challenges of reviewing new works outside of one’s understanding (and I do believe it is possible, and this is in NO way a criticism of Harris who I felt did her due diligence), especially given that there is so much new BIPOC narrative being written for the stage and screen in the past few years.

But before I write on the challenges of reviewing new BIPOC narratives, or narratives outside the dominant big stage narrative, I feel compelled to address the bison in the room about this work and other Indigenous works: more than a few times I’ve heard assumptions that our work is being produced because PWIs (Principally White Institutions) are mandated to do so. First off, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a ‘mandate’ such as this, but in any case, BIPOC narratives have been MIA for a century and a half on the big stages of our country and not only is it the right thing to do to produce them in order to address this situation, it is a fantastic thing to do.

From a technical point of view, I cannot begin to tell you how AMAZING an aria in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) is, so you need to listen to one yourself. Further, I am not only a librettist and opera architect, but I am also a trained classical singer who has studied composition, arranging, orchestration, conducting, and voice. I had to sing art songs by Debussy, lieder by Schumann, requiems by Fauré and Brahms, motets by Byrd, masses by Dufay etc., and I know a gorgeous language when I hear it, and let me tell you, Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) is a gorgeous language to sing. It is filled with vowels and vowels are the emotion of a vocal line, the place in which the feeling of the song’s emotional content is conveyed, with the consonants conveying the information. As I say in public lectures all the time, our concert halls have been filled with many of the gorgeous languages of the world: French, English, Russian, Italian, Spanish etc., so why not some of the amazingly beautiful Indigenous languages in our midst?!! Then too, the many Indigenous world-views and approaches to story, well they are also revelatory and astonishingly beautiful, dramatic, and compelling and have a wonderful and rightful place on our big stages.

I suspect some of our non-Indigenous audience members didn’t quite ‘get’ this opera because I actually am writing a DIFFERENT way of telling story than the usual story arc; this is a MICHIF OPERA!!! Indeed, I often plunked our actors and singers and dancers right into the middle of a story, and I treated the opera as a huge visit in which several visits throughout time are told through story and aria. In Li Keur I play havoc with eras, knowingly, and meander, knowingly. I mean has anyone been to a Métis kitchen party? Does anyone at a kitchen party take the room and tell a story from A-Z and everyone listens? Hell No! (And tell me, how many diversions might one have in a European opera? Ever tried to follow one of those crazy plots?) At a Métis kitchen party, what happens is that folks chime in to someone’s story, add or distract, and then the storyteller might get distracted and go off on a tangent, or begin to embroider heavily and lose the plot. Then, in a Michif context, the story might be told in SEVERAL languages even in a SINGLE SENTENCE!! It’s called Linguistic Accommodation and it’s how our people spoke and sometimes STILL speak. I know this to be true because I’ve been at a Michif’s table for li galette i’pi thé and heard four languages in a single sentence!! And hey, look how even this little essay is meandering (something that gave my PhD advisor and my dramaturg nightmares).

Okay, so I wrote a Michif opera, one that I suspect non-Michifs, or Michifs who DON’T REALLY KNOW their own culture too well, might not understand. And because of this, I would like to comment on Holly Harris’s truly kind review.

The reviewer (wisely I think) called me beforehand to talk about HOW to approach reviewing a Métis work. I told her to be honest and state that she doesn’t know WHAT she’s looking at. I said to her that it would be akin to me reviewing Kabuki theatre or Chinese opera. There is just so much in Li Keur that someone outside our culture probably won’t understand, not the least that Alex is conducting the dancers, singers, and even the orchestra at times with his feet, that his knowledge and work tie together the entire piece. A Métis reviewer would have been able to see what Alex is doing and comment on it. And indeed, the Black Goose Band of Alex, fiddler Melissa St Goddard, and guitarist Jordan McConnell together form the driving force throughout, every bit as much as the conductor and co-composer Weisensel does.

And I think Harris’s was a fair review in a typically ‘European’ fashion, but really, it’s apparent the reviewer doesn’t understand fully what she is looking at, and how could she — this is a culture that has been underground to some extent for over 140 years. An example of this is that there is a mention that the narrators and narration slow the ‘drama’. Well, that was entirely purposeful on my part to break this up into stories, little visits etc., and indeed it was an ongoing issue with us in the rehearsal process as more and more of the visits were cut and the work was forced into a more ‘European timeline’ when I always meant for the opera to slow down. As Mémère says in the opera at one point (in Michif) ‘Be patient, good story takes time’!

The choreographer was not mentioned in the review. While the reviewer did mention the pas de deux (very much in the reviewer’s worldview and to everyone’s mind it was GORGEOUS), and how wonderful it was to have jigging, I venture the reviewer has NO idea of the level of jigging on display, nor the repertoire and how well Li Keur was choreographed etc., nor the historical provenance of SO much of the dancing etc. (e.g., the wine glass dance — which, incidentally I had to FIGHT for to be included — the broom dance, la Montagne Tortue etc.). Yvonne M Chartrand, the choreographer, is a Knowledge Keeper of our dance culture and her work is performed internationally; she is, quite frankly, a national treasure. An example of Chartrand’s brilliance comes during the creation story when the belly of li Gran Buflo’s belly is split open and Métis music and dance emerge from the belly: Chartrand has the first dancer, Ryan Richard of Sandy Bay FN, emerge doing powwow steps, then Danielle Enbloom, a Michif from Minnesota, comes out doing Irish jig, and then come Jera Wolfe and Élise Page doing first the Butterfly Dance, and then Red River Jig. What Chartrand does in a few minutes of dance is give an entire history of Métis dance. Brilliant! And again, what the reviewer may not realize is that EACH dancer is world class in their fields. For those of us in the know, we are absolutely amazed that such a corps di ballet/Michifs could be assembled — but it’s not the average reviewer’s world to know this. Still, I honestly appreciate the kind review we did received.

Ultimately, what I feel is most important is that we filled the 2200-seat theatre THREE times and folks simply cannot get enough of Li Keur, especially OUR peoples — our kinship networks (including FNs folks and our European kin). The audience was full of younger-than-usual audience members, many for whom opera is a ‘foreign’ thing. We made it our own and THAT is what counts. Another thing I’m extremely proud of is that 70% of the performers had never been engaged to perform a big stage opera before. I am thrilled if we opened some doors. Now here’s the thing, our story is the story of a continent and certainly our nation of nations known as Canada. Folks are asking every day when they can see Li Keur.  I haven’t heard a word from anyone in the opera world but I can advise people to contact their local opera and lobby for Li Keur to come to their community. Judging from the response we had every night, including a dress rehearsal with TEENAGERS (who LOVED it), I don’t really think it’s much of a gamble. And who knows, it might convert a whole new audience at the same time.