Canada's Chief Justice takes part in Western Premier of Louis Riel opera

Opera students at the University of British Columbia travel to different countries every year to learn where the art they practise comes from. But now, with the world arriving in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics, the UBC School of Music is on a mission to showcase Canadian opera.

Harry Somers’ Louis Riel has been selected as the performance to do just that. The opera was commissioned for Canada’s Centennial in 1967 and is Canada’s most famous opera. This is only its third ever production and its western premier, and former UBC law professor Beverly McLachlin, Canada’s Chief Justice, will be part of a symposium that examines a host of issues around one of Canada’s most controversial historical figures.

“It’s an important opportunity for us to highlight Canadian opera and Canadian history and to inspire a debate on human rights and indigenous human rights,” says Nancy Hermiston, professor at UBC’s School of Music and director of Louis Riel.

The opera tells the story of Louis Riel – the founder of Manitoba, Métis leader and politician who led two rebellions against Sir John A. Macdonald’s government. The opera uses English, French and Cree to examine the controversial figure some consider a patriot and others a rebel.

The struggle between what is good for the individual compared to a nation is a major theme in the opera, as is the idea of a truthful, responsible and accountable government – issues still prevalent today.

To facilitate a dialogue about these topics, UBC Opera is holding a symposium Feb. 3 – 7 that will feature talks, panel discussions and a day of youth activities.

Symposium presenters and dates include:

  • Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin
    • Feb. 3 – 7:30 p.m. Pre panel discussion address
    • Feb. 4 – 6:30 p.m. Pre show address
  • Jean Teillet, aboriginal lawyer and grand niece of Louis Riel
    • Feb 3. – 7:30 p.m. Panel discussion
    • Feb. 6 – 6:30 p.m. Pre show address
  • Bruce Dumont, President of Métis Nation B.C.
    • Feb 3. – 7:30 p.m. Panel discussion
  • Academics from UBC, the University of Toronto and Memorial University.

Hermiston has been working with Richard Kurth, director of the UBC School of Music, Madeleine MacIvor, associate director of UBC’s First Nations House of Learning and Klisala Harrison, postdoctoral fellow at UBC School of Music to put the symposium together.

Hermiston acknowledges that Louis Riel is a challenging and moving opera, with drama, musical notes and rhythms that can be difficult to grasp.

“For a university to attempt this is really quite something,” says Hermiston, who believes the difficulty of the work reflects the struggle of Riel’s life.

One scene starts with an aggressive chorus of Saskatchewan citizens yelling for Riel’s execution. He’s on trial for treason after losing the 1885 North-West Rebellion, and in this scene Riel makes a plea for his life. During the rehearsal, everyone on stage broke down – “there wasn’t a dry eye left,” Hermiston says.

“When you’re in that opera it’s so emotionally overwhelming,” says Hermiston. The chorus members are forced to bottle up their emotions and stay in character, continuing to chant for Riel to be hanged. “It was so hard for those kids to get up and continue in their characters.”

Louis Riel is playing at UBC’s Chan Centre for Performing Arts from Feb. 4 to 7. The symposium will run Feb. 3 to 7. For performance and symposium information, visit


Nancy Hermiston
UBC School of Music
Tel: 604.822.8246
Cell: 604.488.9835

Heather Amos
UBC Public Affairs
Tel: 604.822.3213
Cell: 604.828.3867