Last night at the York Theatre was the world premiere of Missing, an opera co-commissioned and co-produced by City Opera Vancouver and Pacific Opera Victoria, and presented in partnership with Vancouver Moving Theatre and the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival. The libretto is by the award-winning playwright, filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist Marie Clements, and complements previous work she has done on the subject of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in The Unnatural and Accidental Women and, most recently, The Road Forward (both the live musical performance and the hybrid documentary film). Settler composer Brian Current was chosen to write the music after a blind jury process, and his very contemporary score is surprisingly spare: for example, there is one haunting section, a nightmare scene of attack upon the Native Girl, that is sung almost completely a cappella, with only the occasional rat-a-tat-tat of some kind of drum or woodblock conjuring the terrifying sounds of approaching and retreating footsteps in the woods. Current's score also makes interesting use of percussion and wind instruments, particularly to ring out lighter, more hopeful notes from the triangle and the flute, in keeping with a thematic focus on Clements' symbol of sparrows taking flight. Another important aspect of this production is that much of Clements' libretto is sung in Gitxsan, and while surtitles are used throughout (including, somewhat unnecessarily, for the English lyrics), one does not have to spend much time looking at the screens bracketing either side of the stage to understand the story of inter-generational and inter-cultural trauma that Clements is trying to tell.
For one of the more interesting choices that Clements takes to telling the story of BC and Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women--along with abstracting and deliberately depersonalizing the violence none of us really wants to confront (we never see the attack upon Native Girl, who is also never named)--is to filter it through the perspective of a white settler woman. Following a car crash on the Highway of Tears, Ava (Caitlin Wood) locks eyes with Native Girl (Melody Courage), who is lying on the ground. Returning to law school at UBC, Ava cannot shake the image from her head, and thanks to her Indigenous professor, Dr. Wilson (Marion Newman), she becomes newly schooled in the epidemic of violence against First Nations women in this country--which also means cutting ties to her racist friend, Jess (Heather Malloy). Ava's increasing politicization around Indigenous issues leads her to begin studying the Gitxsan language and she eventually marries her classmate, Devon (Kaden Forsberg), in a traditional Gitxsan ceremony. In the hands of any other writer, the charges of cultural appropriation would likely fly fast and furious, but having established Native Girl's haunting of Ava in the first scene, Clements explores the idea of shared trauma and reciprocal empathy as a bodily process of incorporation--and also, as interestingly, excorporation. That is, the opera culminates in a moving duet between Ava and Native Girl in which, both naming and then touching different hurt parts of their bodies, they physicalize what feeling the pain of another actually means. At the same time, Native Girl's trapped soul can only be freed once she takes Ava and Devon's baby--whom we are told cries often and seems to be wracked by some sort of spirit--in her arms and soothes her.
Parallel to this story of inter-cultural connection we also witness the effects of Native Girl's absence upon her mother (Rose-Ellen Nichols) and her brother, Angus (Clarence Logan). Crucially, the only interaction between the family is shown in a brief flashback scene, in which Angus and Native Girl frolic and play across time and space, while in the present their mother keens her relentless and bottomless grief. In this we are witness to one of the other major issues connected to this national tragedy: that without these cases being solved and the bodies of the missing and murdered women being recovered, there can be no closure for their families, only an endless void. As effective as this is, I have to admit that as with Corey Payette's Children of God (which played the York earlier this year, and which I blogged about here) I did feel at times like the Indigenous characters at the heart of this story appeared peripheral to it. Nichols (who played Pauline in City Opera's original opera about the life of E. Pauline Johnson a few years ago) is such a commanding stage presence, and on some levels she seems under-used. To be sure, Clements is far too intelligent and savvy a writer not to understand what she is doing on this front. Just as this story would not have been ignored for so long had the women who were going missing been white, so is Clements forcing us to ask ourselves, in our focus on Ava, why are we only paying attention now? And to the issue of settler self-positioning in relation to this tragedy, it's important to note that Native Mother does indeed get the last word. And it is very much a challenge: what are you missing?
Assuredly directed by Peter Hinton, and with expert conducting by Timothy Long (subbing for an ailing Charles Barber), this production also features amazing projections by Andy Moro (who also designed the set) and a terrific lighting design by John Webber. With the troubled inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada having just released its interim report (asking for, among other things, more time and money), and with the recent discovery and identification of the remains of Traci Genereaux on a farm in Salmon Arm, this opera couldn't be more timely. But it also deserves to have a much longer life, and will ideally tour across the country, and also enter into Canadian operatic canon.