Manitoba Opera’s first production of the season, “Li Keur: Riel’s Heart of the North”, opened this past Saturday and it is hard to overstate the significance of this cross-cultural, boundary-breaking historic opera.
The first Indigenous-led operatic production on a Canadian mainstage, the work brings together singers, dancers and musicians in a celebration of Métis culture, Indigenous languages and storytelling presented through the grand – and changing – form of opera.
Conceptualized and written by Métis poet and librettist Dr. Suzanne M. Steele, the score was prepared by the combined forces of composer Neil Weisensel and traditional fiddler Alex Kusturok.
“I’ve never worked with another composer before,” says Weisensel – a veteran of the genre, having penned eight previous operas.
After having heard Kusturok perform at Folklorama in 2017, Weisensel and Steele approached him and asked if he might be interested in getting involved in the project.
“I kind of didn’t think too much of (the conversation),” admits Kusturok. It wasn’t until three years later, in the early days of the pandemic, that Weisensel called and suggested that they “get to work.”
“I wasn’t familiar with opera... I was just writing fiddle tunes, tunes that I would play at dances: gigs and reels,” says Kusturok.
The pair would go back and forth: Kusturok would write a tune, send it to Weisensel, he would realize a harmonization before sending it back and receiving suggestions.
“That was really fun for me and I feel like I really learned a lot from Alex,” says Weisensel.
The resulting score is an amalgam of worlds – Métis fiddle tunes meet modern operatic vernacular – with both composers actively involved in the performance.
Kusturok can be found on stage with fiddle in hand, while Weisensel leads the musicians of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra from the pit creating a sort of symbiotic relationship, each playing off the other.
“We need to hear the fiddle because the orchestra is following me,” says Kusturok, likening the musical atmosphere to the winter showcase Festival du Voyageur, which places an emphasis on Francophone and Indigenous artists.
“It’s like Festival with a side of opera,” explains Kusturok.
“Li Keur: Riel’s Heart of the North” has two more performances – though limited tickets remain: Wednesday, November 22 and Friday, November 24.
Visit: www.mbopera.ca for more details!