I watched and listened to the second preview of I Call Myself Princess, Jani Lauzon’s impressive new play with opera, presented at Aki Studio in a collaboration between A Paper Canoe Projects, Cahoots Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts.
Genre can be a slippery thing. I heard Lauzon call the work a play with opera, although it could just as easily be called a play with music, or even a musical. I think genre is most useful when it guides experience, telling us what to expect. This name –play with opera—is rather unexpected, but come to think of it, so is this work. I think we’re being signaled that something unusual is going on here. Much of the music had a life previously in another century, but that is no stumbling block, indeed this is one of the most singularly Canadian works I have ever seen. The mix confounds us by making a great deal of sense, or at least matching the odd idea of European cultural artifacts absorbing Indigenous elements. Once more I stumble over an idea Peter Hinton invoked in the Canadian Opera Company production of Louis Riel, that Canada is a Metis nation.
I’m happily reminded of Lauzon’s steadying presence onstage last year at the beginning of Louis Riel, even if this time we’re hearing her words rather than seeing her perform.
There’s a dramaturgical strategy to Lauzon’s piece that is part spirituality, part good story-telling. We are told that Indigenous people believe that when you die you don’t go away, and this is something I’ve seen in other works, for instance Jeremy Dutcher’s performance last season, when he addressed his performance both to the living persons in the space, and the spirits we couldn’t see.
Similarly, we have a story that exists simultaneously in 2018 and 1918, as the past inter-penetrates the present. This is the way Lauzon writes but it’s reality too. When a young man in modern times is investigating his cultural heritage, discovering the ways in which his culture has been appropriated: he would wander into the past. As he opens books and plays tunes, history and his culture comes alive around him. We see his experience at the same time as we see the creations of a century ago, that were at that time ALSO appropriating his culture. It’s simultaneously a metaphor –where the present interrogates the past—and the actual mechanics of the story, a way for 2018 to literally investigate and explore 1918.
Pardon me if you can hear my mind audibly boggling in the background
This is a talented group onstage. In a way the genre choice lets them off the hook. Only Marion Newman is expected to sound operatic, whereas the others are free to be true to their character, and let me add –almost in passing– that Newman’s acting is superb, playing a kind of angelic figure of the spirit world, who sometimes becomes the performer of 1918. If Aaron Wells had sounded too accomplished as a singer of opera I think that would obstruct the story-telling and undermine the authenticity of his portrayal as a young aboriginal student exploring his past: which is central to the story. And when he sings Indigenous music towards the end it’s a highlight of the evening as his voice is most genuine. No we’re not in an opera, we’re in a play, and as such I think author Lauzon & director Marjorie Chan wanted above all that we see something genuine & moving. And that’s what we got. Yes I love opera, but I must confess that opera rarely if ever gives me the kind of vivid portrayals I saw today.
I am sad when I face this fact, that opera often falls short. And the morning after I am adding this paragraph. Do composers ask this question (one put to me by a director years ago): what are you adding with your music? Would this work better without you? are you truly taking us beyond the words into what only music can add? Lauzon made a generic choice of a pathway where the music is always illuminating her story, a wonderful hybrid that is always compelling.
Everyone sings at times. Richard Greenblatt sings & plays much of the show from the piano, a vivid image of composer Charles Wakefield Cadman, who happily appropriated Indigenous culture a century ago. Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster is Nelle Eberhart, who strikes a blow both for the equality of women and the inclusion of aboriginal stories in opera, as the librettist working with Cadman. Howard Davis plays several parts, including his role as Alex, Aaron’s lover, helping to launch the present-day storyline with Wells. The writing from Lauzon is very slick & accomplished, as we accept first the possibility that two people separated by thousands of miles can converse naturally, and shortly thereafter – with Newman’s appearance from the past, that someone from a hundred years ago can also slide into that conversation.
There’s also a really important credit in the program “Musical Direction & Composition by: Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate” that I can’t properly address, because I don’t know what’s his and what’s the music from the original a century ago. All I know is that it fits together beautifully.
I don’t want to give too much away, only to say that we’re in the presence of a great deal of humour & wit to lessen the pain one might feel. And Lauzon’s plotlines embody different story arcs of liberation, for women, for blacks, for gays, as well as Indigenous people. While this was a preview, yet the work is firmly taking shape, the cast seeming very assured in the music & their lines. And it must be said that this is a substantial work, two hours to make you think, to feel, and plenty to stay with you afterwards.