Gathering in a church to witness it creates a charged atmosphere for this story. As it dances uncomfortably up against a residential school survivor’s trauma, any contextually discomfiting Euro-Christian vibes the space gives off are displaced by the telling of this tale. Canoe—an opera presented by Unsettled Scores in collaboration with Native Earth Performing Arts, The Toronto Consort and Theatre Passe Muraille—invites us into the world of two Indigenous sisters in Northern Ontario who reconnect with their family history, heal and harness their power to face a broken world.
Written by Spy Dénommé-Welch and Catherine Magowa, this story begins with Gladys (Nicole Joy-Fraser) chopping down their ancestral birch tree. This upsets her sister Constance (Kristine Dandavino) and the two wrestle with their opposing attitudes regarding tradition and real world practicality. Their isolated rural life is upended by a Tree Spirit (Conlin Delbaere-Sawchuk) and a celestial figure named Debaajimod (Michelle Lafferty), who turns out to be a turtle—the very one whose back the sisters inhabit as Turtle Island. As a flood sends the sisters adrift, the Tree Spirit becomes a birch canoe that guides them back to land.
The persuasive score for a quintet of woodwind and string is haunting and meditative. It pulls us through the emotional shifts in the story, leading us gently through its eerie dirges and purposeful cadences. Throughout, it contains a certain terrestrial awareness that grounds us. The libretto blends elemental imagery with the colloquial familiarity of the sisters’ playful banter. A lot of humour comes from flippant wise-cracks delivered in an operatic mode.
The cast does a fine job of conveying relatable people even throughout the more fantastical elements of the narrative. They revel in the grand spectacle of opera and find a naturalistic humanity inside the heightened aesthetic. The mundane domestic rituals of the sisters’ life together is particularly revealing, hinting at their gruff and tense mutual affection. The darker elements of Gladys’ residential school experiences and the scars that remain from her history of self-harm are handled gently, our imaginations left to fill in the awful details.
The minimalist lighting and scenic design, by Siobhan Sleath and Lindy Kinoshameg respectively, are suitably earthy and expressive with tree stumps suggesting a mostly destroyed forest. The birch-like markings on his windbreaker to suggest the Tree Spirit are simple and evocative, as are his serpentine movements. Despite persuasive performances and a considered aesthetic, this premiere staging feels more like a workshop than a fully realized production; the power of the material, though, is undeniable. I look forward to future incarnations of this potent, whimsical and innovative new opera.