Marie Clements, Pacific Opera Victoria and City Opera Vancouver aren’t interested in telling a single story.
The tagline for Missing, Pacific Opera Victoria (POV) and City Opera Vancouver (COV)’s new co-production centred around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), reads: “A story everyone knows, from the vantage of a woman no one remembers,” setting the scene for an opera that opens up conversation about an ongoing Canadian crisis.
While incorporating present-day political issues into Canadian opera may seem new, Canadian operas, like the works of Mozart, Shostakovich and Puccini, have often looked to express political issues. Aside from Harry Somers’ recently remounted Louis Riel, Calixa Lavallée’s 1883 operetta TIQ: Settled at Last. A Melodramatic Musical Satire in Two Acts depicts Sioux relations with the U.S. army (TIQ stands for “The Indian Question”), and Joseph Vézina’s 1912 operetta La Fétiche tells of First Nations issues and conflicts in 19th century Canada.
These works hold importance, as they display a wider picture of the many communities and issues across Canada. However, Indigenous voices have often been silenced in these one-sided portrayals.
Peter Hinton’s recent staging of Louis Riel at the Canadian Opera Company poignantly drew attention to the problematic storytelling employed in many artistic depictions of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples. In Riel, an assembly of Indigenous actors silently stood onstage throughout the action, symbolically pointing out the silencing of Indigenous voices in Canadian history.
Missing, which will also be staged by Hinton, tells the story of a victim of the MMIWG crisis in a variety of voices. Though the composer of Missing, Brian Current, is not Indigenous, the opera’s creation has involved a wealth of Indigenous perspectives. COV and POV organized consultations and workshops with residents of Vancouver’s Eastside neighbourhood and with Indigenous members of the community.
Librettist Marie Clements, who is Métis-Dene, praises this inclusivity-minded approach to storytelling.
“In some ways the story really is based on native and non-native experience,” she relates of the opera’s objectives. “I think those two things are important right now, to reconcile this issue and this trauma with the reality of how many murdered and missing women there are in B.C. and in Canada. It’s important not to excuse or exclude anybody because it’s our issue and our responsibility to look at it and come to terms with it.”
Born in 1962 in Vancouver, Marie Clements is the author of twelve plays, including Tombs of the Vanishing Indian (2012), Copper Thunderbird (2007), and numerous radio, film and multimedia works. Her mixed background broadens her perspective in telling this story.
“My background, obviously culturally, is mixed,” she explains of her Métis-Dene heritage. “Not only mixed race but mixed urban and rural. I’ve felt that it’s important to bring that to the table when creating.”
Missing will also be sung in different linguistic voices, as the libretto incorporates both English and Gitxsan, the language of the Gitxsan nation of British Columbia.
“Obviously English is the main language of the piece,” she explains of the linguistic choices, “and two of the lead characters speak and sing in English. But there are also characters that are Gitxsan and live just off the Highway of Tears. We wanted to reflect their language and also that connection to the land and the experience they were going through.”
Missing marks Marie Clements’ first time writing for opera, although Clements has found power in the medium.
“[Writing for opera] is poetic and economic and ideas have to be succinct,” she says of libretto-writing. “There’s something potent about that. Trying to get ideas, action or emotion across in a very pure way demands something different from a writer.”
As opera-lovers know, opera at its most potent can inspire change, dialogue and action. Marie Clements also believes the technical craft and richness of opera hold transcendent potential.
“[In opera], new stories and ideas can be communicated across audiences that are not just from one class or one place,” she cites of the the art form’s possibilities. “[Opera] can be extraordinarily beautiful and in some ways, can reach people’s souls.”
As novelist Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie describes, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Marie Clements hopes that Missing only begins the dialogue about MMIWG in the opera community, opening up a platform free of stereotypes and incomplete stories.
As she puts it, “[Missing] is only one story. Many need to be told.”