TM2: Stephen Slessor

Reimagining Louis Riel: Language, Translation, and Indigeneity in a Canadian Opera  

Stephen Slessor

University of Ottawa

Abstract: Commissioned for Canada’s centennial celebrations, Harry Somers’ opera Louis Riel was first performed in Toronto and Montréal in the fall of 1967. The linguistic duality of these initial performance sites mirrors the dominance of the French and English languages in the libretto (brief interludes in Cree and Latin notwithstanding) and the framing of Riel’s history as one of tensions between two so-called founding nations. When the Canadian Opera Company joined forces with the National Arts Centre to bring Louis Riel back to the stage for Canada’s sesquicentennial, a primary goal for the new production was to honour Riel’s Métis culture as well as indigeneity in a broader sense. Language played a vital role, with surtitles in Michif—a Métis language—given equal status alongside French and English. The cast and production team also included many indigenous artists. Albert Braz has shown that the historical figure Louis Riel has been variously represented as everything from a traitor to a martyr to a cultural mediator and even a father of Confederation and archetypal Canadian. This presentation will compare the 1967 and 2017 productions of Louis Riel, examining how each configured linguistic and culture tensions in ways that reflect important political currents of their own times, 50 years apart. A reading of most the visible manifestations of language and culture is contrasted with the underlying ambiguities of the music and storyline, exploring what has been lost and found in translating the history of a key North American indigenous figure into the ultimate European art form—the opera.

Keywords: Opera translation; indigeneity; surtitling; Louis Riel; Michif.

Bio: Stephen Slessor is a PhD candidate in Translation Studies at the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation. His primary research investigates how literary translators are responding to the technological changes that are revolutionizing translation practices. He occasionally moonlights as an opera singer.