Pimooteewin (The Journey)Pimooteewin (The Journey) said to be the first opera in Cree, had its premiere in Toronto in February 2008. Commissioned by Soundstreams under artistic director Lawrence Cherney, and based on Aboriginal legend, its creative team included Cree-Canadian writer Tomson Highway (libretto), Chinese-Canadian composer Melissa Hui (music), and actor/dancer Michael Greyeyes, a Plains Cree who, in fact, does not speak the language (director and choreographer). Performed in Cree with English narration and English surtitles, the original cast included Bud Roach, tenor, as Weesageechak (the Trickster); Xin Wang, soprano, as Misigoo (the Eagle); Narrator Cara Gee, the Elmer Iseler Singers led by Lydia Adams, and a seven-member chamber group, as well as actors and dancers. Dancers were often cast as kuroko (stage hands) as in Japanese kabuki theatre, sometimes using puppets to manipulate the sets and props.
The idea for Pimooteewin took place in 2003 at a Soundstreams festival in which Cherney, Highway and Hui were all participants, and where discussion on cross-cultural collaboration led to the project. Highway's 2005 libretto (there was an earlier longer version) is based on a combination of Cree story-telling tradition and real life, particularly a dream he experienced on the death of his bother René.
The story tells how Weesageechak and Misigoo visit the dead spirits of their loved ones and try to bring them back to the world of the living in a basket. However, the dead souls escape and eventually return to the land of the spirits.
The Trickster persona, who is both male and female, part human and part god, appears in many native stories under various names depending on the tribe. Although the word Trickster implies humour, there are several layers of interpretation, all of which may not be grasped by non-native viewers.
First Cree Opera?
There has been some discussion as to whether Pimooteewin is in fact the first Cree opera - or if it is an opera at all. It has been called (including by its creators and Soundstreams) "new music theatre, new music drama, Cree music drama, semi-staged drama, oratorio, or a Cree-language opera". The work clearly has a multi-cultural aspect from First Nations (myths and legends), to European (opera tradition) and Asian (Hui's Chinese roots; the Japanese kabuki influence). Strangely, those in the role of narrator (Gee and Fairbrother) are First Nations, (Ojibwa not Cree), and they performed in English, while the native language roles were taken on by non natives (Elmer Iseler Singers). The chorus played the dual role of commenting on the action as well as representing the dead souls.
The production toured Northern Ontario in 2009 visiting Timmins, Cochrane, Moose Factory, Iroquois Falls, Kapuskasing, and Moosonee. The Trickster and the Eagle were as per the original cast, with Meegun Fairbrother as the narrator. The chamber ensemble was reduced to drum and keyboard, the role of the dancers expanded, and French surtitles were added to the English ones. A further tour took place in 2010 that included Red Lake, Sioux Lookout, Thunder Bay, Wawa and Red Rock. Both tours had an educational component. Beginning in 2010/11, Soundstreams has offered Pimooteewin workshops among its outreach programs to students in the Toronto area from kindergarten to grade 12, based on the Toronto District School Board curriculum, and featuring storytelling, dance, voice and percussion.
Although inclusion in the Vancouver Cultural Olympiad (2010) did not materialize, in 2011 plans were being made for international tours.