Reflections on Two Odysseys

by Menon Dwarka, Executive Director

It’s been a month since Two Odysseys, our double-bill of Indigenous operas opened at Daniels Spectrum. I just started as interim executive director of Soundstreams a few weeks before the premiere, and most of my recollections from that time are just a blur of spreadsheets, files and innumerable introductions. But the mystery of Two Odysseys has stayed with me, where a melody, a body in motion or a mask might rise to the surface of my consciousness, pulling me out of the administrative day-to-day tasks to a place where my recollections were more felt than understood. 

I’ve been putting off writing this blog post for some time, partly because it’s been a busy time leading up to the holidays, but also, I knew there were more important things to say about these operas than just patting ourselves on the back for being on the right side of history. Making space for systematically oppressed people isn’t heroic. It’s the way things should have always been.

Two Odysseys, photo by Dahlia Katz. Mask commissioned by Two Odysseys co-director Michael Greyeyes, created by Nisga’a carver Mike Dangeli.

But before you think that we started down the road of developing Two Odysseys more than a decade ago solely as an act of reconciliation, I’ll take a moment to remind you that we’re in the business of “making art”. The initial collaborators, Michael Greyeyes and Lawrence Cherny, artistic directors of Signal Theatre and Soundstreams, respectively, came together to explore how texts in Indigenous languages could have a life in musical forms. Originally conceived as an oratorio, Pimooteewin’s evolution lead the production team to present Tomson Highway’s text as an opera. Its companion piece, Gállábártnit, followed a parallel creative process with the language of the Sámi people of Norway. The results recalled echoes of various contemporary opera traditions, but I was having a hard time describing what was musically Indigenous about these works. If I couldn’t understand Cree or Sámi, much in the same way I don’t understand German or Italian, was Two Odysseys just like another night at the opera? I knew it didn’t feel that way, but I couldn’t explain why Two Odysseys was so different from other contemporary operas. 

Two Odysseys, photo by Dahlia Katz

I found my answer just a few days ago in a performance debrief between Signal Theatre and Soundstreams. Michael Greyeyes wanted clarification on what we would be “selling” if Two Odysseys went on tour. Would it be a show, or would it be a larger experience? In his thoughtful and insightful clarification, he highlighted that while shows had the potential to inspire listeners for an evening, a slate of programs where the public could engage in Indigenous-led arts practices could have a long-lasting impact on how communities come together and learn about each other, effecting change far beyond the art world’s aesthetic preoccupations.

I realized that I was too focused on the “art” part of “making art”. I missed that the Indigenous processes that lead to their creation, the “making” of “making art”, was what differentiated them from other operas. The de-emphasis on hierarchical thinking, the collaborative team-building, the extra care that went into communicating within and between groups, these are the things that must be celebrated as much as the work of the composers in Two Odysseys. It might not give you a clearer idea of what the works sound like, which you might find in a traditional review, but knowing how these operas were created might provoke a greater openness to the works as they stand. 

Suffice it to say that if this experience is any indication of what’s to come during my time at Soundstreams, I’m very much looking forward to what Lawrence and the team will come up with in the not-so-distant future. I hope you’ll join me in celebrating the triumph of Two Odysseys, and use that good will to support our future efforts in the 2019/20 season.