Opera revival embraces complexity of our history

Canadian baritone James Westman embraces his role as neither all saint nor all sinner. In fact, it is the historically undersold complexity of the Father of Confederation that drew the Don Wright Faculty of Music lecturer into this role of a lifetime.


Don Wright Faculty of Music lecturer James Westman portrays Sir John A. MacDonald in a revival of the famed Canadian opera Louis Riel.

In the Canadian Opera Company (COC) revival production of the Canadian opera Louis Riel, Westman plays Sir John A. MacDonald, father of Confederation, first Canadian Prime Minister, and the man who charged Métis leader and Manitoba founder Louis Riel with high treason – a charge that carried the death penalty at the time. It is a complex role for a complex figure.

“It’s an honour, and I’m humbled,” Westman said. “But, at the same time I must say – and I don’t want to offend anyone by saying this – Sir John A. MacDonald wasn’t the nicest of men in terms of getting his job done. If you want to be a true historian now, and not just drink the textbooks that even kids nowadays learn about him, he was ruthless. Playing him is a complex issue for me because I knew of the history and how biased it was.

“The most important thing to realize is I don’t play him as a villain. In 1967, the opera really does portray him as a villain. I try to portray him more as someone who is just as passionate about Louis Riel. But he’s misguided. When I’m singing this role, I want the audience to look inward and think ‘am I looking outward and having empathy for different people?’”

Louis Riel is an opera in three acts by Harry Somers, with an English and French libretto by Mavor Moore and Jacques Languirand. Consisting of 18 scenes, the opera covers 16 years in the life of the Manitoba schoolteacher and Metis hero, from the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70 to the North-West Rebellion of 1884-1885 and his eventual trial and hanging in Regina in 1885. It also dramatizes the political machinations in Ottawa that resulted from Riel’s actions, as well as several confrontations between Riel and his family, friends and foes.

Considered Canada’s most famous opera, it was first performed by the Canadian Opera Company as part of Canada’s centennial celebration on Sept. 23, 1967, at the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto. Later that year, it was staged as part of Expo 67 in Montreal. That production was adapted for broadcast on CBC-TV in 1968.

A sketch of the Sir John A. MacDonald costume, by costume designer Gillian Gallow, for the current Canadian Opera Company production of Louis Riel .

A sketch of the Sir John A. MacDonald costume, by costume designer Gillian Gallow, for the current Canadian Opera Company production of Louis Riel .

Louis Riel was revived by the Canadian Opera Company in 1975 for several performances, including its U.S. premiere on Oct. 23, 1975 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., presented as part of Canada’s contribution to the U.S. bicentennial celebrations. Louis Riel was last presented in February 2010 in Vancouver as part of its Western Canadian premiere.

Critics described the opera 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.” American critics called it “one of the most imaginative and powerful scores to have been written in this century.”

The latest staging runs through May 13 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. The National Arts Centre will also premiere Louis Riel in Ottawa on June 15 and 17.

The opera is directed by Peter Hinton and sung in English, French, Michif (the Metis language, not included in the original production) and Cree. The creative team followed the guidance and wisdom of members of the Indigenous community in the development of the 2017 production.

“We asked Peter Hinton to direct this production of Louis Riel because of his long-standing relationship and involvement with Indigenous artists and his knowledge and experience in mounting a theatrical project of this scale,” said COC General Director Alexander Neef. “His involvement brings an informed and culturally sensitive approach to the interpretation of Louis Riel we are sharing on the stage.”

For Westman, the opera tackles a pivotal period of Canadian history he feels is important to examine today.

“This is a very important opera. It’s very Canadian. It is our history told in absolute true form. A lot of the text and the dialogue, the libretto of the opera, is made up of conversations, diaries and correspondence between each character. This is what these people said. And what these people wished for,” he said.

“For me, it’s important to tell that story, instead of boosting certain characters up. As a Canadian, I don’t want to battle confederacy – Confederation is a wonderful thing and Canada is a wonderful country – but we have to own up to our past more.”

Westman, who grew up on a farm in Kirkton, Ont. that dates back to pre-Confederation times, was raised in a musical family. His mother was an organist and accomplished musician who recorded for the Tommy Hunter Show and played with fiddler Ward Allen. As a child, Westman was a member of the American Boys Choir and Vienna Boys Choir. As an adult, he’s appeared in many of the world’s leading opera, recital and concert halls. Nominated for two Grammy awards and three Juno awards, he has recorded for Decca, Opera Rara, CBC and BBC.

He joined Western’s Faculty of Music this fall.

“This faculty is just one of the most rewarding, collegial institutions I’ve ever had the pleasure of being a part of. To see each of these individual kids thrive and see everyone working together – it really is one of the best faculties I’ve ever seen. I want to stay there forever. I really feel they’re doing something right.”

Perhaps adding to the pressure of the moment, Westman steps into a role originated by Dutch-born Canadian bass-baritone Cornelis Opthof, who performed with the Canadian opera Company for half a century, performing in more than 75 productions.

Although he has played many roles in many operas over the years, Westman said there’s something unique and beautiful about Louis Riel.

“Peter Hinton has taken this opera and just catapulted it into 2017. The music is intriguing and almost beyond the 1960s. In 2017, people will now appreciate this music even more than in 1967. It’s unique and it’s beautiful. Everyone needs to go see this and I am completely honoured to be a part of it.”


Famed Canadian opera Louis Riel, featuring Don Wright Faculty of Music lecturer James Westman as Sir John A. MacDonald, will be staged by the Canadian Opera Company through May 13 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. The National Arts Centre will also premiere Louis Riel in Ottawa on June 15 and 17.

For more information and tickets, visit coc.ca.