After three sold out shows, the Manitoba Opera production of "Li Keur: Riel’s Heart of the North" has wrapped up. The final performance was last Friday night, with a Southern Manitoba connection, and former Golden West announcer, part of the cast, Altona’s Nolan Kehler.
In the historical opera, 21st century Joséphine-Marie, through a grandmother’s story, is transported to 1870s Montana where she encounters an ancestor, the sharpshooter Josette, a runaway travelling with Louis Riel and the last buffalo brigades. Josette falls in love with the young, passionate, Louis Riel, in disguise, on the run from assassins. At its heart, this opera seeks to celebrate Métis languages and ways of being. Sung in Southern Michif, French-Michif, Anishinaabemowin, French, and English, the opera’s text was developed with Indigenous language keepers who continue to be involved with the project.
Kehler played the role of Antoine Laroche, a friend of Riel's in the production.
"LaRoche is a French-Canadian character, loosely based on stories from the time when Louis Riel was in exile in what we now know today as Montana," explained Kehler. "Those stories, of the two of them crossing the medicine line to do trade and to do business together. Laroche was, for all intents and purposes, Riel's friend and was part of a representation of the different cultures that existed on the Manitoba, North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan Prairies, at the time."
Kehler got involved with the show in June of this year, being offered the role, and had been "workshopping" it since August.
"The opera has really been such a labour of love, for nearly a decade now, because the people who were putting this show together really wanted to do this story justice, and wanted to ensure it was the best representation of Métis culture that it could be," he shared.
The production was conceptualized by Métis poet and librettist Dr. Suzanne M. Steele and co-composed by Alex Kusturok and Neil Weisensel.
There was a tremendous amount of research and care taken in creating the story and show.
"They went and they asked about Métis cultural stories and identity, and they spent a lot of time and money investing in a language database to ensure the language and the music was as authentic as it could possibly be," explained Kehler. "The casting for the show was largely done with Indigenous and Métis artists in the leading roles, which was incredibly exciting. We had Elders coming in to help us with the language as we were putting this story together."
"Li Keur: Riel’s Heart of the North" was the first full-scale Indigenous-led opera presented on a Canadian opera mainstage.
"Really, really humbling," said Kehler when asked what it meant to him to be part of that first. "In opera, which is a very Eurocentric or white sort of musical genre, to be one of the people in the show who was able to sit back, and take in this culture that has been the life blood and the experience of my castmates for their entire lives, and exists in their families for over 150 years, it was a really special thing to be able to just soak it all in, and to learn about the different ways in which we can approach all of the things I think artists can sometimes take for granted."
One of the things he is taking away from the experience is sometimes it takes time for a story to evolve over the course of a show, pointing to the 2 1/2 hour run time for the production.
"The way that this was constructed, and that was by design, these stories as my Métis collaborators kept saying, they can take time, and they can take time to unfold and to be shared," he said. "It's not necessarily about the goal of finishing a story. It's taking the time to have that shared experience, to live into a story. There's all these little shifts and changes in perspective I know are going to really change the way I think about future projects, and the way I approach singing and music going forward."
You can listen to CFAM Radio 950 Morning Show Co-Host Chris Sumner's conversation with Nolan Kehler, below.
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