Louis Riel (opera)

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Louis Riel
Opera by Harry Somers
Harry Somers.JPG
The composer in 1947
  • English
  • French
Based onLouis Riel, a Métis leader
September 23, 1967 (1967-09-23)

Louis Riel is an opera in three acts by the Canadian composer Harry Somers.

This full-length opera was written for the 1967 Canadian centennial. It concerns the controversial Métis leader Louis Riel, who was executed in 1885, and is one of Somers' biggest pieces.

It is arguably the most famous Canadian opera. Somers set the music to an English and French libretto by Mavor Moore and Jacques Languirand. The opera was commissioned by the Floyd S. Chalmers Foundation and produced by the Canadian Opera Company with financial assistance from the Canadian Centennial Commission, the Canada Council, and the Province of Ontario Council for the Arts (Ontario Arts Council).

Performance history[edit]

Louis Riel had its first performances at the O'Keefe Centre in Toronto 23 and 28 September and 11 October 1967 and at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts, in Montreal 19 and 21 October 1967. Victor Feldbrill conducted, Leon Major directed, and Murray Laufer and Marie Day designed the sets and costumes. The original cast included Bernard Turgeon as Riel, Cornelis Opthof as Sir John A. Macdonald, Joseph Rouleau as Monseigneur Taché, Patricia Rideout as Riel's mother, Mary Morrison as his sister Sara, Roxolana Roslak as his wife, Howell Glynne as William McDougall, and Remo Marinucci as Baptiste Lépine.

The libretto depicts the post-Confederation political events bounded by the Indian and Métis uprisings of 1869–70 (Red River Rebellion) and 1884–5 (North-West Rebellion) and the personal tragedy of the leader of the uprisings, the Manitoba schoolteacher and Métis hero Louis Riel. After the premiere, Kenneth Winters described the opera in the Toronto Telegram (25 September 1967) as a 'pastiche ... big, efficient, exciting, heterogeneous ... It had no ring of eternity but it was a vigorous harnessing of current and choice; a brash, smart, cool hand on the pulse of a number of fashions, social, dramatic and musical.' The production was repeated in 1968 in Toronto—six performances with the assistance of the Chalmers Foundation—and was adapted by Franz Kraemer in 1969 for CBC TV.

In 1975 Louis Riel was revived by the Canadian Opera Company for several performances, including one in Toronto, 27 September, honouring the International Music Council's 16th General Assembly; three (14, 16, and 18 October) at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa; and one (23 October, the U.S. premiere) at the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., as part of Canada's contribution to the United States' bicentennial celebrations. Wendell Margrave of the Washington Star described the opera as 'one of the most imaginative and powerful scores to have been written in this century.'

Using a broadcast tape from the 1975 US performance, Centrediscs produced a three-record set of the complete opera (CMC-24/25/2685-3), which was launched in November 1985 at the 'Image of Riel in Canadian Culture' conference in Guelph, Ontario. Feldbrill conducted the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Turgeon and Roslak repeated their roles, and were joined by Donald Rutherford (Sir John A. Macdonald), Jean-Pierre Hurteau (Bishop Taché), Diane Loeb (Riel's mother), Ann Cooper (his sister), Ronald Bermingham (McDougall), and Remo Marinucci (Lépine).

'Kuyas'—the lullaby sung in Act III by Riel's wife to their child—was used prior to the opera's premiere as the test piece for the Montreal International Competition in 1967. It was recorded in 1983 by Roslak on Centrediscs CMC-1183.

Louis Riel was not presented again until Opera McGill gave the first full staging in 30 years, at Place des Arts, 27–28 January 2005, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of McGill University's music program. Riel was played by Luc Lalonde, Macdonald by Michael Meraw, and Bishop Taché by John Taylor; François Racine was stage director and Alexis Hauser, music director. The revival won an Opus Award as event of the year.

To coincide with the 150th anniversary of the confederation of Canada, the Canadian, a production of Louis Riel by the Canadian Opera Company and the National Arts Centre was performed from April 20 to May 13, 2017 at the Toronto Four Seasons Centre, and is scheduled for June 20 to June 27 at the Ottawa National Arts Centre.[1] Directed by Peter Hinton, this revival is the first COC opera to cast indigenous artists for indigenous roles.[2] The production features Michif, the Métis language, not included in the original production, and is set to split the opera chorus in two- the Parliamentary chorus, representing western settlers, and the Land Assembly Chorus, representing indigenous people directly affected by the victories and losses of Riel.[3]

The 2017 cast includes Russell Braun as Riel, James Westman as Sir John A. Macdonald, Alain Coulombe as Monseigneur Taché, Allyson McHardy as Riel's mother, Joanna Burt as Sara Riel, Simone Osbourne as Riel's wife, Doug MacNaughton as William McDougall, and Taras Chmil as Baptiste Lépine.[4]


Roles at the 1967 premiere were:[5]

Role Singer
William McDougall Howell Glynne
A Soldier George Reinke
Ambroise Lépine André Lortie
Thomas Scott Thomas Park
Joseph Delorme Jacques Lareau
Janvier Ritchot David Geary
Elzéar Goulet Lloyd Dean
André Nault Phil Stark
Baptiste Lépine Ermanno Mauro
Elzéar Lagimodière Donald Rutherford
Louis Riel Bernard Turgeon
Dr. Schultz Peter Milne
Charles Mair Donald Saunders
O’Donaghue John Arab
Bishop Taché Joseph Rouleau
Sir John A. Macdonald Cornelis Opthof
Sir George-Étienne Cartier Perry Price
Donald Smith Ernest Atkinson
Julie Riel Patricia Rideout
Sara Riel Mary Morrison
Colonel Garnet Wolseley Maurice Brown
Hudson’s Bay Scout Robert Jeffrey
Marguerite Riel Roxolana Roslak
Gabriel Dumont Garnet Brooks
James Isbister Lloyd Dean
Poundmaker Oskar Raulfs
Gen. Sir Frederick Middleton Ernest Atkinson
Father André André Lortie
Wandering Spirit Herman Rombouts
Clerk of the Court Donald Saunders
Judge Maurice Brown
F.X. Lemieux John Arab
B. B. Osier David Geary
Dr. François Roy Robert Jeffrey
Prison Guard George Reinke


  1. ^ "Media Releases". www.coc.ca. Retrieved 2017-04-17.
  2. ^ "Reclaiming Riel with an eye to reconciliation | Toronto Star". thestar.com. Retrieved 2017-04-17.
  3. ^ "How the COC set out to solve the problem with Louis Riel". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2017-04-17.
  4. ^ "Media Releases". www.coc.ca. Retrieved 2017-04-17.
  5. ^ Schabas, Ezra; Morey, Carl (2000). "Opera Viva, Canadian Opera Company, The First Fifty Years". Dundurn Press. p. 250.

External links[edit]