As a playwright, director, and multimedia artist, Marie Clements is known for her fearless determination to tell Indigenous stories—but even she was hesitant, at first, to explore the new-to-her world of opera while writing about missing and murdered women.
“When you’re asked to write on this theme or this reality, sometimes your first response is ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can go in there,’ just because of the gravity of it,” she tells the Straight from Toronto, where her musical documentary, The Road Forward, is screening at the ImagiNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival.
But the story needed to be told, and Clements is not one to back away from a challenge. The result is Missing, her collaboration with Toronto-based composer Brian Current, City Opera Vancouver, and Pacific Opera Victoria, produced in partnership with Vancouver Moving Theatre/DTES Heart of the City Festival.
Technically, the biggest issue for the Métis artist was learning a medium she’d previously overlooked. “A lot of times, in thinking of opera, I would think that it was just for people who had money, you know,” she says, adding that for a playwright, the idiom’s compressed style of storytelling required some adjustment. “I find that opera’s very lean,” she explains. But Clements adds that it’s a multimedia art form, which fits in with her preferences and with First Nations storytelling tradition. Missing unfolds in Vancouver and along the Highway of Tears in northern B.C., but it also takes place in the realm of dreams, the land of myth, and the caverns of the unconscious.
At its core, though, is something very real: how our culture stereotypes Indigenous women and puts them in constant danger of rape or worse. That’s why Ava, the young, non-Native woman who is one of the opera’s two protagonists does not, at first, extend empathy to the “unnamed Native girl” she sees hitchhiking in the North.
“There’s a moment where she’s feeling ‘Well, should I pull over?’ ” Clements explains. “But it’s getting dark and she’s a bit scared, so she doesn’t pull over‚ and that’s how the story begins. It’s this kind of chance seeing each other for a moment, and then we go on from there.”
Over the course of Missing, the nameless hitchhiker gains a posthumous identity, and Ava develops an understanding of her complicity in the events that led to the girl’s death—a satisfyingly theatrical frame for a story that is both under-reported and all too familiar. “I think it’s important that it be told everywhere and anywhere, because we’re tired of having to tell this story and tired of it happening,” Clements says. “It’s shocking on so many levels. To me and to so many other people, this is not an Indigenous issue; it’s a human issue. As human beings we have a responsibility to end this, and so we’re asking for people to open their hearts, to be able to comprehend on an emotional level what’s really happening in this country.”
In a separate interview, Current admits that he was initially ignorant of the extent of the dangers Indigenous women face, but that his dawning understanding helped shape the musical language he’s opted to use.
“The very first performance of this will be for families of the victims, right?” he says. “A closed event with grief counsellors, and it’s going to be intense. And if we’re going to talk directly to them, then I don’t want it to be in some big avant-garde, complex language. I want them to understand it the very first time that they hear it. It’s really much more about impact and communication than anything I’ve done before.”
It’s about inclusion, too. Much of Missing will be sung in Gitxsan, and the production team plans to take it on the road to communities along the Highway of Tears.
“Half the cast is Indigenous, and there is something extraordinary about seeing these beautiful performers who come, many of them, with their own cultural positions and also this trained voice out of the European tradition,” Clements says. “They’re able to bring all that to the stage, and I think that’s unique. For me, it’s a gift—and something that in itself would make you want to sit up and go ‘What’s going on here? I want to see that.’ ”
City Opera Vancouver and Pacific Opera Victoria present Missing in partnership with Vancouver Moving Theatre and the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival at the York Theatre every other night from Friday to next Saturday (November 3 to 11).