Opera: Emotions run high for cast of Missing

ON STAGE

What: Missing
Where: The Baumann Centre, 925 Balmoral Rd., Victoria
When: Nov. 1-2, 7 p.m.
Tickets: Sold out

Mezzo-soprano Marion Newman has worked for two decades on projects that were artistically challenging, from Handel’s Messiah to Verdi’s Requiem. But few have matched the spiritual satisfaction of her two-year involvement with Missing, the critically lauded chamber opera by Métis librettist Marie Clements and composer Brian Current.

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Told in both English and Gitxsan, a Tsimshianic language spoken in northwestern British Columbia, Missing is set in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and along the Highway of Tears, a stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert.

The theme of missing and murdered Indigenous women is a heavy burden for participants in the production, Newman said, and rehearsals for a pair of sold-out performances at the Baumann Centre this week have given the Sooke-raised singer plenty to think about during her return to Vancouver Island.

“It’s impossible to mount a work like this as a traditional piece, like I would Mozart or Puccini, because it does raise such sensitive emotions,” Newman said. “You can’t just go to the end of rehearsal without stopping, without enough time to process what you’ve been doing. You have to be able to leave the rehearsal hall without dragging all that weight and grief with you.”

Newman, a member of Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations, has sung in previous performances of Missing, a City Opera Vancouver/Pacific Opera Victoria co-commission that was supported by the Vancouver Foundation with a $127,000 grant.

The chamber opera, which is performed with an ensemble rather than a full orchestra, had its world première in 2017 and is being remounted with a $150,000 grant to the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, part of a $13-million commitment by the federal government to fund more than 100 projects honouring the lives and legacies of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The development of both the original production and the current touring production have also been supported by grants from Canada Council for the Arts.

Newman, who has lived in Toronto for 19 years, was raised in Sooke, and much of her family still lives in the area — her brother is master carver and University of Victoria professor Carey Newman — so she knows the story behind Missing well.

Dozens of women and girls have either gone missing or been murdered on the 725-kilometre stretch of northwestern B.C. road since 1969, and for years, the victims were both nameless and faceless to the public.

Their profiles have risen in recent years, thanks to projects such as Missing, Newman said. “It’s a time when not just Indigenous matters but human-rights matters are really coming to the fore. We are trying to find ways of stopping that behaviour and encouraging people to be more thoughtful of each other.”

Missing is one of several creative works spotlighting the issue, though Clements, a celebrated First Nations playwright, focused on two women — only one of whom is Indigenous — for her chamber opera.

The cast, many of whom have First Nations heritage, have worked hard to make it as universal as possible, without sacrificing emotional heft, Newman said. She’s joined for the upcoming performances by several collaborators from the original production, including soprano Caitlin Wood, mezzo-sopranos Rose-Ellen Nichols and Heather Molloy, director Peter Hinton and conductor Timothy Long.

“In this case, it’s not just telling someone else’s story. A lot of us relate to this personally, because we have family and friends who are part of that statistic, those women that are missing or murdered,” Newman said. “It’s so personal, it’s impossible to think of it as a job.”

Heading into rehearsals this week, Newman had the advantage of experience, having already sung the part of an Indigenous lawyer named Dr. Wilson.

Combined with her experience in other high-profile operas, from The Marriage of Figaro and La Traviata for Opera Lyra Ottawa to The Handmaid’s Tale for Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company, she felt she could offer both perspective and support to her castmates.

Missing never gets any easier to sing, no matter how many times she has the opportunity to do so. The cast has met with Indigenous support workers during rehearsals, to help those in the production “stay rooted with each other as a family of cast members and team,” Newman said. That close bond has become a trademark of all her work in the years since Missing premièred.

“I treat my cast, no matter what I’m doing, as a family now, more so than I did before the first time I did Missing. It brings people together. We’re looking out for each other, to make sure that we’re OK.

“The last time we did this, there was a cast member who didn’t reveal it at the time, but it took her three months to stop feeling depressed after having done this work. I was quite horrified that that could happen to someone, and made sure that that wouldn’t happen again, to make sure that if the work is that hard, the companies that are mounting it help to provide the support needed to make sure that that none of us have to carry that kind of thing out of work.”

The touring production will continue with performances in Regina (Nov. 8-9) and Prince George (Nov. 15-17), the first time a Pacific Opera Victoria production has travelled such a distance.

Missing will have resonance for decades to come, and Newman hopes it will provide some healing to families of missing and murdered women.

“When we hear someone singing to us, I think it just resonates differently in our bones than reading a story does, or seeing news bits on television. We absorb that story so fully that I think it makes us have to process it more deeply. And in that way, I think art can make change, because it changes us.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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