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HANDEL’S Messiah — perhaps the most famous piece of choral music in history, chronicling the birth, death and resurrection of Christ — is usually performed to packed audiences the world over at Christmas.
But this year many choirs, amateur and professional, haven’t sung together since March and face the prospect of not doing so again for quite some time.
But every cloud, to employ that well-worn phrase, has a silver lining. Unable to give their annual performance of Handel’s masterpiece, Toronto-based opera company Against the Grain decided to film one instead — with a twist.
By working with First Nation soloists, some of the Messiah’s most famous arias have been translated into six of Canada’s many indigenous languages and reinterpreted, from evocations of Christian faith to the cultural beliefs of autochthonous peoples.
Against the stunning backdrop of the snow-covered mountains of the Yukon’s Kluane region, soloist Diyet of the Southern Tutchone performs Oh thou that Tellest Good Tidings of Zion, reinterpreted as an ode not to God but to a creator: “Who brings this good news? Share [it] from the top of the highest mountain.”
The beautiful aria I Know that my Redeemer Liveth is sung by Leela Gilday of the Dene people, from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories: “My creator, living I know, land inside, water inside, air inside, earth inside.”
Canada’s autochthonous population, like others the world over, suffered enormously from the horrors of colonialism.
One unforgivable 19th-century government policy was the forcible removal of First Nation children from their parents and enrolment at notorious “Indian residential schools,” to assimilate them into the dominant Christian tradition, thereby eradicating their ancestral touchstones and traditional practices.
Rightly described as cultural genocide, the policy — which only stopped in the 1960s — continues to haunt Canada to this day.
Many indigenous languages are on the cusp of extinction, while those who survived the schools, and many didn’t, remain haunted by multiple traumas.
Singing alone cannot solve those problems and Against the Grain acknowledge that the road to reparation is a long and difficult one.
But for believers and non-believers of any culture, Handel’s themes of hope and despair, love and grief, speak to the eternal verities of the human condition.
That First Nation peoples are reclaiming them, and sounding magnificent as they do so, is a step in the right direction.
Available to stream at atgtheatre.com until January 31.
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