Western researcher launches land-inspired opera set in a canoe

Spy Dénommé-Welch (Photo by Lady Luck Photography)
Spy Dénommé-Welch (Photo by Lady Luck Photography)

An accomplished storyteller and composer, Spy Dénommé-Welch’s true talent may be listening – listening to the land around him for inspiration, grounding and guidance.

Western’s Canada Research Chair in Indigenous arts, knowledge systems and education launches his latest foray into music and opera on Sept. 12 with the premiere of Canoe, an opera that revolves around the lives of twin sisters Constance and Gladys and “the flood that consumes their world.”

Dénommé-Welch (Algonquin-Anishnaabe) wrote the libretto, the text in an opera, and story for Canoe and co-composed the music with frequent collaborator Catherine Magowan.

Canoe blends Indigenous storytelling and music to create a unique operatic experience, says Dénommé-Welch. An experience quite unlike anything you may have heard before from opera icons like Luciano Pavarotti.

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it a clash, but Canoe is an intersection of opera, musical theatre, storytelling and Indigenous viewpoints,” said Dénommé-Welch. “And the land has a viewpoint too. There is obviously a lot of character building like so many other musical productions, but Canoe is definitely outside the norm. And I think that’s what makes it interesting and engaging.”

Dénommé-Welch, a professor in the Faculty of Education at Western, is a proponent and practitioner of land-based education and research, which aims to strengthen Indigenous communities by rebuilding traditional relationships with the natural environment around them. It also informs the way Dénommé-Welch tells a story, writes a song or sets a stage.

“When I was writing Canoe, I really wanted to be present in the space that I was writing about. There is a whole sequence about paddling, and the sound of paddling. I composed that sequence next to a lake, which informed the way that paddling would sound in an opera,” said Dénommé-Welch. “It’s really about listening and being present in the space as opposed to just imagining it. By actually hearing it and then working from there, the story and music become much more embodied.”

Visual Art by Mishiikenh Kwe

Canoe is a two-act opera that showcases the talents of four Indigenous singers and an ensemble of historical instruments including recorder, violin, cello, lute and harpsichord. It debuts on Tuesday, Sept. 12 at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre (427 Bloor St. West, Toronto) and runs all week with nightly performances at 7:30 p.m. through Saturday, Sept. 16. There is also a matinee on Saturday, Sept. 16. at 2 p.m.

“Operatic storytelling, like any great storytelling, is about character building, so we build a relationship with these two sisters, Constance and Gladys,” said Dénommé-Welch. “By the end, the hope is that you understand a bit about their life trajectory, their struggle and their own transformation or realization of who they are. There is this really beautiful journey that we go on with them that you should find very interesting.”

Canoe is an Unsettled Scores production in collaboration with Native Earth Performing Arts, The Toronto Consort and Theatre Passe Muraille.