‘Missing’ Turns Tragedy Into Art

B.C.'s Highway of Tears goes from headline fodder to artistic inspiration in an ambitious new opera.

November 1, 2017

By Roberta Staley / Photo: Pickerel Yee

The silhouette of a man sprints across the stage. There are no flashing knives, no obvious murder weapon—just murky, muddled violence that is absorbed more than it is seen, like a nightmare sprung to life out of the depths of sleep. A girl’s voice cries out: “Tell Momma I ran! I ran! I ran as hard as I could. Tell Momma I ran!” These words are the final, lingering echoes of the 16-year-old whose death marks her as one more victim along northern British Columbia’s Highway 16, better known as the Highway of Tears.

The number of murdered and missing Aboriginal women in Canada is testament to the racism and gender violence that runs deeply through this nation’s veins. Since 1980, 1,200 Aboriginal women have gone missing or have been murdered, with an estimated 50 Indigenous women and girls vanishing along this notorious stretch of B.C. highway since 1970. The issue has finally gained the attention of Ottawa, with the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls launched in late 2016, but it seems incongruous—and certainly ambitious—to take this tragedy and render it into art.

Yet this is precisely what City Opera Vancouver has done with Missing, its newly created chamber opera, which runs for five nights starting November 3 at Vancouver’s York Theatre, followed by five shows at Pacific Opera Victoria. The intimate two-act production focuses on an Aboriginal teen whose fate is sealed when she misses the school bus and hitchhikes home along Highway 16, only to be picked up by a predator. Against this backdrop, the grief and horror endured by survivors, who wait in vain for news of a missing loved one, is thrown into sharp relief. By humanizing the families of the victims, Missing honours their journey into the abyss and, hopefully, back toward some semblance of peace, says its composer, the Juno Award–winning Brian Current.

Playwright Marie Clements.

As Missing’s librettist, Vancouver filmmaker and Métis playwright Marie Clements elucidates this violent demimonde with empathetic elegance. For her, the work is a cathartic reckoning, the start of a healing journey for both Aboriginal people and the colonial culture, evoking “the hope that we’re evolving to this idea that we are responsible to each other.”

Similarly complex themes have been fearlessly embraced by City Opera Vancouver throughout its 11-year history. The company’s works have explored territory from the loss of a child (Sumidagawa, 2010) to the invisible trauma of war (Fallujah, 2011). Missing, however, is new ground for this adventurous company, with sections of Clements’s libretto sung in Gitxsan, the Aboriginal language traditionally spoken in the region ribboned by Highway 16. By replacing common opera staples like German or Italian with the sonorous and throaty sounds of the Gitxsan language (one native speaker described it as “like swallowing a fishbone”), the chamber opera becomes firmly rooted in Aboriginal history and experience.

Authenticity is imperative in telling this “painful and necessary story,” says City Opera Vancouver’s artistic director Charles Barber. To achieve this, the company invited families and friends of the missing to critique the production at various workshops and brought in vocal coach and Gitxsan speaker Vince Gogag to ensure the delivery and pronunciation of the language ring true—although four of the opera’s seven singers are Aboriginal, none are Gitxsan speakers. Feedback from those with a personal connection to the opera’s source material was crucial in its development, says Toronto’s Current, recalling how he changed the score after one workshop participant told him, “We don’t sing that high.” As a result, the minimalist score for Missing “is different from anything that I’ve ever done before,” says Current.

With its exploration of the universal theme of loss, Missing lays the foundation for a bridge between two cultural solitudes that must work together, embracing reconciliation and ultimately forgiveness, to give birth to a new Canada—one where we realize that we are all each other’s keeper.

Missing

November 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11
The York Theatre, 639 Commercial Drive
Tickets: $22 to $65
cityoperavancouver.com

 

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.