Soprano Deantha Edmunds in an excerpt from her aria, "How Beautiful Are the Feet," performed for Messiah/Complex. (YouTube screenshot)

Topics: Ethical Living | Culture

New Messiah production aims to lift up diverse voices

Handel's beloved Christmas classic has been shortened, made more inclusive and brought online for free

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For one Inuk soprano, performing an aria from Handel’s Messiah in Inuttitut connected her craft to her family history — and helped her feel closer to her late father. 

“I’m just so excited,” says Deantha Edmunds, “because I get the chance to share the unique music history from Nunatsiavut, where my father was from.”

Edmunds’s father was born in Hopedale, on the eastern coast of Labrador. Moravian missionaries brought classical European music when they arrived in the late 18th century and much of their music was translated into the local Inuit people’s native language. 

“It’s just unbelievable to a lot of people to think that before there were orchestras in what we now call Canada, this music of Mozart and Handel and Haydn and Bach and other Moravian composers as well, this music was being made and celebrated in Labrador, all in Inuktitut,” she says. 

Edmunds is one of 12 soloists from across the country who contributed their voices to Messiah/Complex, a new, online rendition of Handel’s Messiah that is intended to celebrate Canada’s diversity and lift up Indigenous and underrepresented voices. The soloists — who are all Indigenous, Black or people of colour — and four choirs involved represent each province and territory. The oratorio’s original English text has also been translated into six languages: French, Inuktitut (of which Inuttitut is a dialect), Arabic, Dene and Southern Tutchone.

Joel Ivany, the founder and artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre, which is staging Messiah/Complex, says the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Toronto opera company to reimagine this year’s planned in-person production of Handel’s iconic work. Ivany says he and his team were inspired by Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year and wondered whether they could play a role in changing perceptions of operatic music, since some see it as racist. Against the Grain usually stages operas, although Handel’s Messiah is not an opera. 

All of the performers recorded their contributions in their home provinces due to COVID-19 restrictions. Messiah is traditionally between 150 and 180 minutes, but Ivany says that Messiah/Complex is closer to 70.

He’s aware that not everyone will be interested in a revamped version of a beloved work.

“I know that this is a sensitive topic, because some people, even outside of whether they’re religious or not, they’re very religious about their Messiah, meaning the music and how it should be performed and how it should be presented,” he says.

“We know we won’t please everyone, but we hope that we can reach out to those who may be open to hearing and seeing this work in a new way.”

Messiah/Complex will premiere online for free Dec. 13, and will be available to stream until Dec. 26. Register here.

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Emma Prestwich is Broadview’s digital editor.


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