The NWT’s own Leela Gilday will this holiday season give a Dene take on the centuries-old opera Messiah by George Frideric Handel.

Her performance is part of the larger Messiah/Complex, a new interpretation of Handel’s composition by Toronto theatre company Against the Grain, which incorporates minority voices across Canada for the production’s broadcast in December.

“What is it to take something that wasn’t born in Canada, to Canada? And what does it look like to interpret that in your own relationship with the music, and the land? That’s how I interpret Messiah/Complex,” said the show’s Inuvialuit-Dene co-director, Reneltta Arluk.

Leela Gilday inside a bush tent near the Stagg River, where her video for the Messiah/Complex show was filmed.
photo courtesy of Amos Scott

Gilday will sing I Know That My Redeemer Liveth from the third part of Messiah in Sahtúot’ı̨nę, the language of her home community of Deline.

“(Against the Grain director Joel Ivany) invited me to make the piece my own,” said Gilday. “I wasn’t restricted to using the text or the language in the way it was originally used. So I  rewrote the piece to reflect my spiritual connection to the land and water and the earth. And then I sat down with my mom and a few of my aunties, and we translated it into Dene K’e and I sang that piece.”

Gilday’s singing was featured in a video filmed last week near the Stagg River, between Yellowknife and Behchoko, for the visual part of her performance.

“We went out and shot on the land in front of a bush tent, feeding the fire and then there’s some really cool, very Northern scenes in there,” she said. A second portion was filmed in Yellowknife.

Gilday’s videos will be among 12 performances from artists across Canada that will comprise the show’s broadcast. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra will provide the backing music.

As excited as Gilday is about the Messiah/Complex project, when Ivany initially brought the idea to her she admits to feeling somewhat intimidated.

“My degree is in opera… (but) I went into songwriting shortly after I graduated, and I haven’t really performed opera in over 20 years,” she said. “I’ve always had a love for it. When I decided to go in a more songwriting direction it was more that I wanted to express my own creative voice, tell my own stories of the North, of Dene, through my songwriting. So I have actually really missed singing in this way.”

Going virtual during pandemic

As Canada approaches its first Christmas season in the Covid-19 pandemic, most people can’t get together the way they’d like to for family gatherings or musical performances, such as Messiah.

In that context, one of the main aims of Messiah/Complex is to take the show to the audience instead of the other way around.

“(It’s) a really good way to keep that joy and that connection to Handel alive. But because people couldn’t gather, it just made sense to invite singers from every province and territory to take part,” said Arluk, who was born in Fort Smith and is also the Banff Centre’s director of Indigenous arts.

The messages of death and resurrection in the original Messiah opera apply to the concept of water as life in the Indigenous context of the North, said Messiah/Complex co-director Reneltta Arluk, who was born in Fort Smith.
contributed photo

Most of the 12 singers in the show are Black, Indigenous and people of colour, and including them was a priority for Ivany.

“Opera is held by many voices, and he’s just amplifying those voices,” Arluk said.

Adapting Messiah to the North

Arluk acknowledged that the original context of Messiah might seem like an odd fit to the environment of the NWT.

The opera was, after all, written in England in 1741 using Christian imagery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, she said Gilday applied the concept of resurrection to the importance Indigenous people place on water.

“Resurrection can be seen as the transformation of water, and how water is life internally and externally around us. When you look at it like that, and using the perspective of celebrating water, celebrating the importance of nature, and how we sustain off the land, and then the future. What is the future of Indigeneity? What is the future of the Dene?”

For Gilday, regardless of the religious beliefs of her fans or of the audience, spiritual music can still give people a sense of peace when many families won’t be able to meet this holiday season.

“Providing that kind of comfort and solace and enjoyment, even if for just an hour I think it’s really worthwhile,” she said.

The free show of Messiah/Complex premieres on Dec. 13 and registrations can be made online.

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