Louis Riel: Harry Somers' Canadian Grand Opera Revived at McGill University

By Turp, Richard | Opera Canada, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Louis Riel: Harry Somers' Canadian Grand Opera Revived at McGill University


Turp, Richard, Opera Canada


IF controversy still surrounds the historical figure of Louis Riel, then it is equally evident that a certain mystique shrouds Harry Somers' eponymous opera about him. Part of that mystique has arisen from the fact that, since this epic Canadian opera was created in 1967, it has only received two productions, as well as a televised airing in 1969. This despite garnering exuberant public and critical acclaim. Indeed, following Louis Riel's U.S. premiere at Washington Opera in 1975 (the first Canadian opera performed south of the border), one critic hailed it as "Canada's Grand Opera .... The music is one of the most imaginative and powerful scores to have been written in this century."

It is hard to reconcile such unbridled enthusiasm with the rare appearances of the opera itself. Louis Riel was created at Toronto's O'Keefe Centre on September 23, 1967, as part of the Canadian Opera Company's tribute to the centenary of Canadian Confederation. The production travelled to Montreal later that year and was presented twice at Place des Arts in Montreal as part of Expo 67. It was revived the following season, an almost unheard-of event in the annals of the COC, and was subsequently taped for television broadcast by the CBC in 1969. A second production of Louis Riel was undertaken in 1975. This production originated in Toronto and migrated to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa before arriving in Washington as part of Canada's celebration of the bi-centenary of American independence.

And then silence. There were several attempts to mount a pan-Canadian co-production of Louis Riel, but Canadian companies seemed leery of investing in and presenting such a costly venture. And, if truth be told, the opera presents numerous challenges and requires considerable and varying resources before the curtain can rise. It has a three-act, 18-scene structure, and contains over 30 singing roles; on- and off-stage choruses; and a symphonically scaled orchestra with a dizzying array of percussion, along with pre-recorded vocal and sound-effect sequences. It also has a libretto that fuses four languages--French, English, Cree and Latin--as well as using popular and folk songs.

Despite such considerations, after an absence of 30 years, it was decided that Louis Riel would be produced once more. Surprisingly, it was not a professional company but one of Canada's most prestigious educational establishments that took the plunge. McGill University's Opera McGill in Montreal programmed the work as part of the music faculty's centenary celebrations. Doubtless the decision in 1967 to write an opera about the controversial Louis Riel could be seen as being as courageous as McGill's in 2005 to remount it, but a niggling doubt remained: Would the work's impact and relevance remain intact after almost 40 years?

If such a doubt existed, it was quickly dispelled by a round-table discussion organized by McGill's music faculty the day before opening night. The round table, which I hosted, reunited a number of the artists of the initial production. Librettist Mavor Moore was present, as were conductor Victor Feldbrill, soprano Mary Morrison (the first Sara, Riel's sister), bass Joseph Rouleau (Bishop Tache), baritone Bernard Turgeon (the first and only Riel until now) and historian and author Maggie Siggins. Several other personalities of note were in the audience, including the composer's widow, Barbara Chilcott-Somers, soprano Roxalana Roslak (the first Marguerite, Riel's wife) and Patricia Rideout (who first sang Riel's mother).

Louis Riel emerged through the memories of these guests as more than another operatic production. All had quickly realized they were involved in something special, and felt the work brought together everyone concerned in a unique fashion. Feldbrill recalled how an ensemble feeling, a team spirit, was created almost immediately, as if the work and the subject acted as a magnet, drawing performers and musicians together. …

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