New Cree chamber opera Chaakapesh: The Trickster’s Quest Comes to the North

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The tundra will be alive with the sound of music this month as the world-renowned Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) brings a Cree-language chamber opera to the north.

From September 9-19, maestro Kent Nagano and the OSM’s musicians will trace a path from Nunavik through Quebec’s interior toward the Lower North Shore, taking them to six villages in three nations: Inuit, Innu and Cree. The tour will visit Oujé-Bougoumou on September 17.

Inspired by a Cree legend, Chaakapesh: The Trickster’s Quest, was specially commissioned for the occasion, with music by Matthew Ricketts and words by Tomson Highway. The opera will be sung entirely in Cree, with narration in one of five languages depending on the venue.

The goal of this ambitious tour is to share classical music with all people while promoting cultural exchange through music’s transcendent power. During the opera’s creation, members of the OSM team joined Highway and Ricketts in artistic residencies in Montreal and the northern village of Ivujivik, organized in collaboration with the Avataq Cultural Institute.

“By reaching north, we are pushing the physical and artistic boundaries of our practice in order to share, exchange and create exceptional works reflecting the diversity of our country, as well as our current reality of living on shared and sometimes disputed territory,” said Nagano, the conductor of the OSM since 2006.

The music director has become famous for his boundary-pushing style, including a previous three-stop tour of Nunavik with seven musicians in 2008, performing with narration in Inuktitut and parts for throat singers.

This time Nagano will be accompanied by the full orchestra in “a contemporary tribute to the sounds, people and traditions of our own land.” The production was commissioned with funds from the Canada Council’s New Chapter initiative.

“By engaging with diverse traditions, we are transforming the expectations that attend to symphony orchestras in the 21st century, while doing our best to address an urgent need for projects of mediation and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations,” he added.

Tomson Highway is certainly one of Canada’s foremost voices in Indigenous theatre, as well as a celebrated novelist and talented pianist. He wrote the first-ever opera in the Cree language a decade ago, feeling the language’s natural melody fit the operatic form beautifully. He has since become an ardent proponent of writing in one’s first language.

“Because if anybody in this country is capable of saving those languages from extinction, it’s the writers,” Highway remarked in 2010, when his successful English plays were relaunched in Cree versions.

His first opera, Pimooteewin, was about a trickster’s visit to the land of the dead, based on both First Nations myth and a dream experienced while lying beside his dying brother. Chaakapesh also uses mythology to tell a story close to his heart. Highway overcame abuse and isolation in residential schools to make the most of available opportunities and is portrayed as defiantly happy in recent interviews.

Chaakapesh, sometimes called “little brother” or similar variations, is a common character in Cree, Innu and other Indigenous legends. He is depicted as a trickster, ignoring his sister’s warnings but always overcoming trouble with his immense strength and positive nature. Since the myth cycle usually ends with him residing on the moon, he’s often called the Man in the Moon in English.

“[Highway] did his own version of the legend,” said singer Florent Vollant, who will narrate the Innu performances of the opera. “This one is very different. In this version, Chaakapesh has the power to make people laugh. White people want to destroy the people of Chaakapesh and he is doing something that will save his people. He wants to teach them how to laugh.”

Filmmaker and Nation co-founder Ernest Webb will be narrating the Cree performance in Ouje-Bougamou. He was quite familiar with the character because the Nation published many of these legends in its early days.

“The way some people look at the legends, a lot of people assume they talk about the past, how things used to be,” Webb said. “Then a lot of people look at them as prophecies as well, as what the future could bring. It also addresses a very serious subject – how we were able to survive and keep our spirit alive is being able to laugh through the different challenges we faced as people.”

The narrators are tasked with moving the story along so the audience can follow. Since Highway wrote Chaakapesh in the Cree dialect of his native northern Manitoba, Webb has been adjusting the text to fit the Cree from back home while retaining the original’s meaning and spirit.

“That’s who I keep in mind as my primary audience, the people back home,” Webb said. “So to be able to take it there is quite special and meaningful for me.”

Webb and Vollant attended separate rehearsals to see how the opera would take shape, working with the singers and a pianist while receiving guidance about stage placement, the rhythm of speaking and where to look during performances.

Both narrators seemed excited and a little nervous to be part of such a prestigious production and also curious to witness the reactions of audiences during the northern tour following the world premiere in Montreal.

“It’s a new form that we haven’t seen before up north,” Webb reflected. “People might have this perception that it’s only for high society or the elite or something foreign, but music transcends all cultures and people and languages. It’s what you feel as the music hits you in your heart, in your spirit and in your soul. A lot of people will be touched by this.”

For Vollant, Chaakapesh represents a meaningful opportunity for reconciliation and cultural exchange.

“I know that Kent Nagano wants to bring people together through the orchestra,” he said. “What is important in this kind of project is to raise awareness of Indigenous culture and the world of myth. And to introduce the symphony orchestra to Indigenous children and Elders – I think a beautiful exchange is going to take place.”

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