Aboriginal culture honoured with powerful opera

(Jody Waardenburg -- Lead Photographer)
(Jody Waardenburg — Lead Photographer)

Giiwedin is a riveting and beautiful tale that captured the audience this past weekend at Wilfrid Laurier University, even for those not already fans of opera. Giiwedin is told from the perspective of a 150-year-old First Nations woman and speaks to the history of First Nations people in the Temiskaming region of Northern Ontario. The performance was devastating, funny and held a powerful message about honouring the First Nations history and knowledge. The score, the singing and the acting spoke volumes to the history and culture of First Nations people. This is the second production of Giiwedin, as a contemporary opera, the first being on stage in Toronto three years ago.

“The composers, when they saw our performance … and our interpretation was vastly different from—in some ways—from the original production in Toronto,” stated the director, Anne-Marie Donovan. “It’s a way of growing the piece that we brought out different things and they brought out things and we brought out other things because we never saw their production,”

One of the interpretations was the choice to use paintings of the land, spirit world and psychiatric ward for projections in order to achieve the evocative, deep imagery in Giiwedin. The opera, a recent release, introduced an intimidation factor for was some of the opera students because they were unfamiliar with the piece.

“I think what was intimidating for me was that I had nothing to go on in the start,” admitted Kendra Dyck, who played Mahigan.

Despite the challenges associated with performing a contemporary opera, all of the singers performed wonderfully on the opening night. Giiwedin is full of beautiful melodies and the performance drew on powerful emotions.

“Noodin-kwe comes in singing with her son [in the spirit world after her death] and there are just some beautiful melodies, especially at the end it kind of sounded like a creepy hymn,” said Dyck, reflecting on a favourite moment.

The students skillfully drew on their talents and aboriginal culture to bring the performance together. The opera class was incredibly involved; the students are able to participate in making sets, costumes and being a part of the promotions.

“They built the canoe, which is actually a [usable] canoe,” stated Donovan.

In preparation for Giiwedin, the cast consulted extensively with the local aboriginal community, who taught them about their history and culture. One of the First Nations students at Laurier is a traditional dancer and she came and taught three singers how to dance.

“Before we even started rehearsals we had a meeting with Spy Dénommé-Welch and Catherine Magowan [the writers of Giiwedin] and the entire production team and they were all telling us ‘this is OK, we are behind you every step of the way, if you have any questions always ask’,” said Dyck.
Giiwedin was part of the opening weekend for Aboriginal Awareness Week. They were honoured that 50 tickets were purchased by attendants of an aboriginal conference for the Saturday show. Additional tickets were offered to Elders and those who helped out in the surrounding community.

Giiwedin was an incredible performance. It was so relevant to our modern history and current reality. The cast and crew of Giiwedin performed so well and truly honoured aboriginal history and culture. It was a performance worth seeing.

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