Empire Étrange – An Oratorio based on the Death of Louis Riel

For several years, I’ve been thinking about writing a score based on Louis Riel. His story is dramatic, even astounding. The tragedy and controversy surrounding his life sink deep into our Canadian identity and the echoes of his legacy are still being felt 123 years after his execution. What better subject for a dramatic choral work?

Letter from Louis Riel to his mother, written the day before his execution. (ASHSB, Fonds Louis, Ref. 1092-431)

Letter from Louis Riel to his mother, written the day before his execution. (ASHSB, Fonds Louis, Ref. 1092-431)

And so… after pitching the idea to Camerata Nova’s board, and after receiving a generous Commission Grant from the Manitoba Arts Council, I started in the summer of 2012 to delve deeply into the history of his life and times.

The more I read, the more excited I got. Riel is a dramatic subject worthy of any Wagnerian libretto! As a composer, the initial instinct is to approach this story in operatic form, but for this particular project it wasn’t feasible. For our purposes, I decided that an oratorio would be the best way to approach the story. There have been many plays, songs, poems, books (even comic books!), films and the celebrated opera by Harry Somers written in the 1960s, but I believe this is the first oratorio about Riel.

The idea of an oratorio also appealed because of the religious overtones in Riel’s story – visions came to him and he was, or viewed himself to be, the prophet in the New World – the new King David leading his people to the Promised Land. A prophet who led a rebellion, he was exiled to the United States (where he made a strong impression on people) and fought with issues of mental stability – he is just as powerful a subject for an oratorio as Elijah!

I have focused on Riel’s execution as the basis for this work, with a strong undercurrent of the trickster spirit coming in and out of the text and music. Along with singing, the choir will be producing sound effects using an eclectic assortment of evocative percussion instruments. The collaboration with the Correction Line Ensemble allows us to add the fantastic artistry of violinist Cristina Zacharias, cellist Leanne Zacharias, percussionist Ed Reifel, composer Robert Honstein and singer/songwriters John K. Sampson and Christine Fellows.

I’ve added a quasi-baroque foundation to the structure of this work, using an overture, arias, instrumental interludes (ritornelli), polyphony and plenty of dramatic chorus. Cristina and Leanne will even be using gut strings on their instruments à la period performance. The musical language, however, will be a bit more 21st century than 18th… To give us that troubadour/aria presence, I have inserted songs by John K. Samson and Christine Fellows into the body of the work.

I’m pretty excited about Empire Étrange. I feel I am bringing new musical drama to one of Canada’s greatest stories. I’m also really pumped about this whole concert, Tricksters and Troubadours. I believe our collaboration with the Correction Line Ensemble finds new ways to express our prairie reality, old and new. As our tag line for this performance says: Manitoba may never be the same…

Andrew Balfour, April 2013

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