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When Louis Riel received its premiere by the Canadian Opera Company in 1967, it was amid the cultural orgy of national celebration that was Canada’s Centennial. Much was made of the “universalism” of the opera; this was perhaps either a deliberate or an unconscious effort to bolster a deep, collective desire to demonstrate both the international success of a potential operatic export and the relevance of the musical-dramatic content to American and European audiences. Glowing reviews of the 1975 remounting of Louis Riel at Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center certainly strengthened the claim of Canadian opera boosters that this work could speak to an international audience. The test, however, of how relevant any form of cultural expression might be lies not in how well it translates beyond one’s borders, but how deeply it resonates within. Over four decades have passed since Bernard Turgeon first appeared on the stage of Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre in the iconic role of the controversial nineteenth-century Métis leader from Manitoba, and the central themes and tensions within the opera still speak to contemporary Canadian audiences.
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