Singer touched by victims’ families strength

: Missing
When: Opens Friday, runs to Nov. 26
Where: The Baumann Centre, 925 Balmoral Road
Tickets: $15/$30 Sold out (waitlist being taken)
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Sooke-raised mezzo-soprano Marion Newman says performing Missing, a chamber opera about murdered and missing Indigenous women in B.C., in front of families of real-life victims was an emotional but necessary experience.

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The performance, a few weeks ago in Vancouver, was the one she was most nervous about, said Newman, 45, who plays the role of a university professor confronting racism in an intense class discussion. “After, in the talkback, some women said they came expecting to feel closed, but saw themselves and their experiences. They opened up and shared so eloquently about their missing family members. I was so touched and proud of their strength.”

The opera, by Marie Clements and Brian Current, opens at Pacific Opera Victoria’s Baumann Centre this week and includes a private performance for local families of victims.

Newman was involved in the opera from an early stage, singing excerpts by different composers for a test group. She said Current’s music stood out for its range and depth and was closest to opera.

“He had an understanding of the depth of emotion needed,” she said. But it was Clements’ libretto that really hooked her. “I cried a lot reading it,” said Newman, who was intrigued by the powerful scenes and poetic writing — but also suggested that audience members read the synopsis prior to watching the opera.

“There’s not a lot of chatter. It gets right to the core of the message: That we need to see Indigenous communities and people as human beings to be taken seriously and the same as us in every way and deserving to be treated as such.”

The story begins with a car crash on the Highway of Tears in Northern B.C., where a white woman named Ava (soprano Caitlin Wood) and a Native Girl (Métis soprano Melody Courage) cross paths. The scene then shifts to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and other spaces, dealing with issues of systemic racism and the more than 1,200 missing and murdered women in North America.

Clements, also an award-winning creator and producer in film, television and radio, wrote the opera in English and Gitxsan (from northwestern B.C. First Nations) with the help of translator Vincent Gogag.

Newman said Missing is not the first production she’s been part of that incorporates Indigenous themes and culture with classical music, but it’s one of the more satisfying.

“There’s a respect and understanding there needs to be an Indigenous voice in the process,” said Newman. “The collaboration is also interesting. … The Gitxsan language fits opera because there are a lot of whispered sounds.”

Newman grew up in an environment rich in both traditions. Her father, from the Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations, was a survivor of the residential-school system and shifted from work as a fisherman and logger to become a respected artist — as is her brother Carey Newman.

Her mother was a teacher who worked in Indigenous communities and decided to homeschool her three children after witnessing racism in the education system.

Newman was surrounded by music, CBC Radio Two mostly, and got her start as a pianist at five when a teacher at the Victoria Conservatory of Music noticed she had a knack.

It was later in her teens, as she pursued a piano-teaching certificate through the Conservatory and Camosun College, that she found her big opera voice. “I had to take voice lessons as part of the program, and one time, when my teacher was out of the room, I started to sing like an opera singer as a joke,” said Newman, who went on to complete music degrees at the University of Victoria and San Francisco Conservatory of Music before building a career as a Toronto-based soloist.

She often comes home to work with Pacific Opera Victoria and said she hopes Missing receives funding to tour nationally. “Activism and music are meeting in this in a very successful way. It’s extremely important to me [that these issues] are discussed.”

Clements, who splits her time between Vancouver and Galiano Island, also hopes to tour Missing. She said opera is a “new animal” for her but she was keen to work on the project when approached. “This story has to be told not just through the news or one person. It needs to be repeated and felt in all areas, so hopefully some change can come.”


Related events

• Friday — Marie Clements speaks at UVic: The Missing librettist, also an accomplished director, writer and performer, will hold a public reading at 12:45 p.m. in the MacIntyre Studio at the Phoenix Theatre at the University of Victoria.

• Saturday — The Road Forward screening: Clements brings her musical documentary The Road Forward to the Vic Theatre at 7 p.m. and will take part in public talk afterwards. The film connects the beginnings of Indigenous nationalism in the 1930s and civil rights to First Nations activism today.

• Tuesday — Lunchbox Opera: A recital at the Baumann Centre at 12:30 p.m. features songs from Canadian operas and performances by soprano Stephanie Nakagawa and Missing singers Caitlin Wood, Melody Courage and Kaden Forsberg. Bring a bag lunch.

• Saturday, Nov. 25 — Classical Music and Indigenous Culture: A discussion of Indigenous art forms, adaptations and cultural practices as they intersect with opera and classical music, featuring Kwakwaka’wakw artist Lou-ann Neel and Coast Salish violinist Swil Kanim. The event is at 2 p.m. at the Baumann Centre.

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