Power of opera gives story of missing Indigenous women emotional depth

REVIEW

What: Missing
When: Runs to Nov. 26
Where: The Baumann Centre, 925 Balmoral Rd.
Tickets: $15/$30, sold out (waitlist being taken)
For more information: pov.bc.ca
Stars: Four (out of five)

 

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Missing, a new opera by Marie Clements and Brian Current about Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women, is a beautiful and difficult homage to a crucial part of our present and past.

The chamber opera is a co-commission between Pacific Opera Victoria and City Opera Vancouver. Clements, a well-known Métis writer and producer, stepped out of her comfort zone to write the libretto and produced a gripping, poetic story with powerful scenes and shifting timelines.

The opera opens with the sound of pounding rain on the Highway of Tears in Northern B.C.

College student Ava is in a terrible car crash and hanging from a tree when she sees Native Girl lying on the ground. As Ava’s life goes on in Vancouver, she sees and speaks with Native Girl. The story makes clear how similar the young women are, in their hopes, dreams and potential, but also how disparate in their fates.

Missing debuted in Vancouver this month and opened in Victoria at the Baumann Centre this week, starting with a private performance for family and friends of missing and murdered Indigenous women — of which there are about 1,200 in Canada.

A memorial poster at the entrance to the performance hall was signed by these guests, the first reminder of the families experiencing trauma and loss.

Tissues were offered with programs before the show began, which I soon regretted not taking, as well as cultural and emotional support workers afterwards and a sage and cedar cleansing.

The atmospheric set was scattered with fall leaves and fronted with a whale rib-like sculpture. The scenes were brilliantly set by designer Andy Moro with projections of moving and still artwork, shifting from nature to the city and Native Girl’s village.

The challenging subject matter — the loss of Native Girl and other missing murdered Indigenous women, as well as racism — was well-served by the operatic form, which allowed the audience to experience the story on a deep emotional level.

Soprano Melody Courage (Native Girl) had immense range and power as she sang first in Gitxsan, a whispery and vowel-heavy dialect, and then in English. Caitlin Wood (Ava) is also a powerful soprano with a deep, rich voice that filled the small hall, which doubles as a rehearsal space. Their huge voices together provided some of the most intense and gripping moments of the opera.

Current’s score, under the direction of Timothy Long, also provided dramatic depth — shifting from minimalist and traditional classical music to jazz-like sections and using heavy percussive elements. The small orchestra even tapped and clapped some sections, while others were sung a capella.

Mezzo-soprano Marion Newman exuded strength and restraint in the challenging role of Dr. Wilson, who gets into a heated debate about racism in a college class and has some of the few spoken sections of the opera.

She says: “Answer me this — what happens to a society when we can’t recognize another human being as another human being? What happens to a society when we can’t recognize a part of ourselves as a part of ourselves? What are we missing?”

The pivotal scene sets in motion Ava’s journey to reconcile what she has now seen, the tragic loss of Native Girl. The story moves along with Ava opening up to Indigenous culture, getting married and becoming a mother, culminating in an offer to Native Girl and peace between them.

Throughout the opera, Native Girl’s mother, played by mezzo-soprano Rose-Ellen Nichols, is shown in anguish over her daughter’s death. When her voice is finally heard, it is a gutting scene sung with such visceral raw emotion it reverberates until the end of the opera.

The word “missing” is repeated throughout the opera and this works for the most part, save for a few instances when it’s sung as a chorus and seems anthemic and slightly jarring to the narrative.

After the performance, a woman took to the stage to offer the Women’s Warrior song — “as medicine,” she said. The song has long been part of the Stolen Sisters Memorial Marches and other gatherings for murdered and missing Indigenous women around the country.

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

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