Li Keur: Riel’s Heart of the North (Li Keur) is a new dramatic musical work by Métis librettist, Dr. Suzanne Steele, and composer Neil Weisensel, MMus, BMus, and will premiere in 2021. This major orchestral and vocal work is facilitated by the Canada Council’s New Chapter Award in 2017. The Canada Council New Chapter program was created to showcase diverse artistic expression across Canada and endeavours to create a lasting legacy in the country’s 150th post-Confederation year. The creators are grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of this exciting new chapter in Canada’s artistic history.
Li Keur: Riel’s Heart of the North explores a little-known chapter in Louis Riel’s life and focuses on the beauty and love of the homeland and of its people, the heart of the north, with a focus on the role women have played. The work, for orchestra, soloists, and choruses is in Cree-Michif, French-Michif, Saulteaux, English, and French. Through community engagement and performances, the Métis peoples’ past, present, and future are reimagined in this 21st century work dedicated to reconciliation and truth, as the artists seek to honour all sides of the ancestral blanket.
In 2017, the artists travelled across Western Canada and the northern United States to research Metis culture and Riel’s life, collaborating with local Metis historians and cultural leaders. After consulting with l’Union Nationale Métisse de St. Joseph (founded by Riel himself in 1884), the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Indigenous communities, and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Steele & Weisensel created a fictionalized account of Riel’s years of exile from 1860 to 1880.
Li Keur is currently a work in progress. Two workshops with actors, singers, piano, and fiddle took place in 2018, and completed excerpts were given a formal performance by the Regina Symphony Orchestra with Indigenous and non-Indigenous soloists, fiddler, and Métis chorus, in March 2019. A complete performance was set to be presented with the Winnipeg symphony Orchestra in October 2020 in commemoration of Manitoba 150, however, the performance is postponed to October 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2020, Steele and Weisensel were awarded a research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in support of the aesthetic translations of the Indigenous languages being used in the work. An outcome of this project will be a Michif/Saulteaux Pronunciation Database (video, audio, textual) that the creators of Li Keur can use to ensure the quality of translations in the new opera. This resource, housed at Canadian Mennonite University will also be a source for the translators to refer to, as well as for the performers, scholars, and other interested parties interested in learning preserving and celebrating these fragile languages. Subtitles of the translated Indigenous languages will be projected at all performances of Li Keur.
In addition to this, Steele and Weisensel are currently exploring ways to create digital performances of Li Keur in order to take advantage of the opportunities presented by pandemic circumstances.