New composer hitting high notes with upcoming opera
By Jenn Watt
Published Nov. 7, 2017
Highlands Opera Studio’s general director Valerie Kuinka knew the timeline was going to be tight producing an original opera coinciding with Canada’s 150th year, but after securing grant dollars and a composer with a compelling story, she was ready for the challenge.
Then her composer, Barbara Croall, bowed out.
“On July 10 we received a letter from Barbara Croall saying that she, through a variety of circumstances involving family health issues, had decided to pull out of the project,” Kuinka recalled.
A workshop performance was a month away with full performances scheduled in both Montreal and Haliburton for the Christmas season.
“We had received our confirmation of funding from the Canadian Heritage in March and it was mid-April when we received our funding from the Canada Council. We were all systems go, we thought. With the first workshop looming on Aug. 19 it was very late,” she said.
Within 10 days Kuinka, who is the stage director on this project, had found a new composer: one willing to conjure an opera focused on Indigenous themes from scratch under intense pressure.
Andrew Balfour, a Manitoba-based composer who has written more than 30 choral, instrumental or orchestral works performed or broadcast nationally and internationally, agreed to sign on.
“It’s a miracle that he was available, interested in the nature of our project and was able to step up to the plate and step right into the project,” Kuinka said.
Stepping into the project didn’t mean picking up the pieces, however.
Balfour needed to come up with an entirely new story, lyrics and concept while keeping with the themes set out originally. Funding was on the line.
“Fortunately, I was able to convince both Canadian Heritage and Canada Council that Andrew, although this has been basically a heart transplant of this project, that in fact Andrew was a wonderful person to take this on and all the essence of the project – the description, the goal, would be intact. We felt very strongly he was the right person for it,” she said.
The new opera, titled Mishaabooz’s Realm, is being created in partnership with L’Atelier Lyrique, L’Opera de Montreal, and is to be performed at Studio-Theatre Alfred-Laliberte in Montreal over two evenings, moving to Haliburton’s Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion Dec. 21 and 22.
An opera in three acts, Mishaabooz’s Realm explores the story of Indigenous peoples in Canada from before contact with Europeans to colonization before moving to healing and understanding.
Balfour is of Cree descent and said he has been exploring his roots for the last 25 years.
“I didn’t grow up with Aboriginal culture. I grew up in a white family and was adopted, so it took me a while to learn about my Aboriginal blood and my culture. I’m 50 years old and I’m still learning about it. It’s a lifelong process and journey,” he said.
Balfour was adopted as part of the infamous Sixties Scoop, a widespread practice across Canada that took children from their Indigenous families and placed them with white middle-class parents.
Knowing his opera would be performed in Haliburton and Montreal, Balfour began researching the first peoples in the two regions.
In the Highlands, he connected with Curve Lake First Nation. He also spent the month of August in Haliburton taking in the local environment.
“For something like this, you can’t always do it in front of a computer. You have to get out on the land, meet elders, meet people, listen to ceremonies, which I’ve loved about this project,” he said.
Balfour had never been to the Haliburton Highlands before and said the landscape provided inspiration for writing the libretto, or words for the opera.
Mishaabooz’s Realm addresses dark periods of the nation’s history and the tragic events that continue to play out within Canada, however, the composer said the intention is to move forward with hope.
“I’m an optimist and I wanted to have a healing element to this opera. Although we do go deep with dark issues and that’s important to me as well.”
Since there is no permanent sizeable Indigenous community currently in the Haliburton Highlands, the project wasn’t an obvious fit for the composer.
“When I first got to Haliburton I thought, this is the weirdest place to write an Indigenous opera, but in many ways, it wasn’t,” Balfour said.
As he spent time in the landscape, he was able to better see the region’s importance to the first peoples as hunting grounds and pathways via lakes through the heavy forests.
The Indigenous people were able to read the land long before GPS and the internet came about, he said.
It is Balfour’s hope that those who see Mishabooz’s Realm will come away with an ignited interest in Indigenous issues and motivation to move forward toward solutions.
“I want them to celebrate the first peoples on Turtle Island, which is North America. And I want them to celebrate the potential of working together, which is very important right now,” he said, specifically pointing to environmental destruction as urgently needing attention.
Kuinka said great care has been taken to represent Indigenous cultures without taking inappropriately from them.
Costumes, for example, will be “reflective of First Nations spirituality and symbolism” without being traditional costumes.
And while the subject matter is intense, the focus will be “a window on possibility and a window on awareness rather than hitting people over the head.”
The opera runs about 90 minutes and includes six core performers, three Indigenous and three from the opera world. In Haliburton, a local community choir will be incorporated and there will be opportunities for audience participation.
“We hope to leave people with new ways of looking at an existing situation with the possibility of healing, that’s the end goal,” Kuinka said.
Tickets are $25 each and can be purchased at highlandsoperastudio.com or by calling the box office at 1-855-455-5533. Performances in Haliburton take place in the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 21 and Friday, Dec. 22.