It was November 1967. Centennial celebrations had reached fever pitch, 20 million Canadians giddily revelling in a slick, carefully orchestrated outpouring of national euphoria. In Vancouver, a smart, ferociously independent regional theatre company, The Playhouse, had chosen to mark the occasion with the debut of a decidedly less than rapturous flag-waving two-act drama by Athabaskan-born novelist and playwright George Ryga. The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, exploded onto the stage, a brutally frank depiction of enduring racism, its cast of Indigenous protagonists the victims of abuse, institutionalized indifference and violence. Audiences were stunned.
Half a century later, shocked and shattered, we are still unable to look away. Nothing Ryga so bitingly chronicled has fundamentally changed, earnest social and political promises to the contrary.
If there is an optimistic note to be sounded in the saga of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, it is that the story of the young Shuswap woman lost in a treacherous urban landscape has continued to move through the collective consciousness of Canadian audiences in fresh, meaningful ways.
A French language translation by Gratien Gélinas produced by Comédie-Canadienne galvanized Montreal in 1969.
Told as dance, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet struck a resonant chord with a much-acclaimed, narratively driven iteration first presented in 1971, reprised in 2011.
And now comes an opera, music and libretto by Victor Davies, unveiled by commissioning producer Voicebox: Opera in Concert at a charged world premiere late last week at Toronto’s Jane Mallett Theatre. A sensitive and urgent musical setting of Ryga’s unforgettable tale, the near capacity audience stood and cheered.
Like so many operas adapted from plays — a rich source of overtly dramatic material historically — The Ecstasy of Rita Joe has been somewhat condensed to serve the interests of music theatre, characters edited, scenes realigned. The role of Teacher, a shrill, imported voice of white intolerance at Rita Joe’s reservation school, has been deleted. A touching bond linking Ryga’s weary agent of law and order, the Magistrate, to a fleeting memory of Rita Joe as a child in the Caribou, has disappeared. But timing cuts — and there are others — paradoxically yield a bonus. Tribal band members appear with greater frequency both in flashbacks and real time greatly intensifying the sense of a huddled community under threat. Taken in its entirety, Davies has renovated and reconstructed with first rate craftsmanship, preserving far more than he has discarded. The vital circularity that swirls through Ryga’s harrowing tragedy, so poetic, so excruciating, the air of terrible inevitability that engulfs us never dissipates. We are dead/This I know, murmurs Rita Joe’s father.
The concept of spiritual ecstasy, the banner that overhangs Rita Joe’s all too brief existence, is as tangible as it is mystical in this intensely focused, clear-eyed treatment of her story. The feverish plot line that is her life is flashed with visions. A bittersweet teenage encounter with her true love, Jaimie Paul, in a country cemetery, bones buried deep beneath them, still haunts her. Nothing over them except us/ And wind in the grass and a barbwire fence creaking/ And behind that, a hundred acres of barley, she sings, gathering the ghosts of a lost past around her. Her murder at the hands of a trio of sadistic bigots speaks of apotheosis, the slaughter of the good and the blameless. Rita Joe has no need of Father Andrew’s empty prayers. She has always been infused with Spirit. Davies has more than preserved the central metaphor of the piece. He has centered it directly under a bank of spotlights.
Seen from a purely musical point of view, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, the opera, radiates expression. Long recognized and admired for his nimble tonal style, Davies has produced a score of sweeping breadth and emotion, brilliantly articulated, instantly accessible. Gershwin, Sondheim, Puccini — jazz meets Broadway meets the opera house. Arranged for small ensemble — cello, violin, clarinet, percussion and piano — themes, edging to chromaticism, restlessly form and reform, finding refuge in a succession of eloquent recits and ariosos. Chorales abound, infinitely varied, inevitably arresting.
Playing with tireless energy and sparkle on opening night, pianist Narmina Afandiyeva flooded Opera in Concert’s stark, minimalist stage with bright, emphatic sound, Conductor/Chorus Director Robert Cooper defining the deeper dimensions of Davies operatic architecture with great care and finesse.
Appearing in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe’s title role, Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations, English, Irish and Scottish singer actor Marion Newman turned in a performance of immense dignity and grace, her clear, open mezzo endlessly impassioned, each appearance building character, loving, indomitable, doomed. Oh, Jaimie, what’s happening to me?, she cries to herself, engulfed by fear, betrayed by her dreams. The audience gasped. Newman stopped the show.
Baritone Evan Korbut sang proud, angry Jaimie Paul, a raging river of pain, ferociously independent, frightened, forever alone within himself. A member of the Garden River First Nation, Korbut electrified from lights up to fade out, his voice perfectly centred, a gifted, charismatic artist with fine dramatic instincts.
Fellow Indigenous cast member, Cree bass-baritone Everett Morrison completed The Ecstasy of Rita Joe’s principal vocal triumvirate as Rita Joe’s father, singing a commanding, superbly actorly David Joe. His poignant, speech-inflected solo that opens Act II, When I was fifteen years old/ I leave the reserve to work on a threshing crew — an old man’s reverie — tore at the soul.
First Nations mezzo-soprano Michelle Lafferty contributed a deeply affecting portrayal as Rita Joe’s lonely young sister, Eileen. Vancouver baritone Michael Robert-Broder fashioned a brilliantly conflicted Magistrate, stern and compassionate, cynical and resigned. Coast Salish Mezzo Rose-Ellen Nichols was a quietly inspiring Old Indigenous Woman. Stuart Graham was an appropriately insufferable Father Andrew.
Populating a variety of dramatic situations and settings, including an imagined downtown community centre, the Voicebox: Opera in Concert Chorus sang and danced its way into our hearts with a rowdy, upbeat rendition of Davies’ sly salute to do-gooders, There is man with a happy face/Who runs a place in the middle of town. The tribute to Mr. Homer, resident liberal chauvinist — deliciously embodied by Michael McLean — may be ironic, but the fun could not have been more infectious. Laughter is a potent weapon.
The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is not an easy opera. Seconds before the final blackout, the cast parted to reveal Rita Joe’s dead body lying centre stage. She was wearing a red dress, Metis artist Jaime Black’s now tragically familiar symbol for missing and murdered Aboriginal women. By applauding Rita Joe, we remember them.
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Above: Marion Newman as Rita Joe, Evan Korbut as Jaimie Paul. Photo by William Meijer, Gary Beechey Studio