Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Tomson Highway’s Pimooteewin

The world's first Cree opera

Credit: (Cylla von Tiedemann)

“I easily fall in love with kind people,” says playwright and author Tomson Highway. “I’m an easy lay.”

Five years ago, after Highway spoke about the musicality of language (“How I see the novel as a piece of music, a play as a piece of music”) at a Soundstreams conference, he was approached by Canadian composer Melissa Hui and Soundstreams producer Lawrence Czerny about doing an opera.

Highway couldn’t say no and the result is the world’s first-ever Cree opera, Pimooteewin (The Journey), premiering Fri, Feb 15. The scale is grand featuring the Elmer Iseler Singers, soprano Xin Wang, tenor Bud Roach, narrator Cara Gee, kuroko puppetry and choreography by Michael Greyeyes, who directs.

The story features the Trickster Weesageechak and the eagle Misigoo travelling to the land of the dead in an attempt to bring back spirits of their loved ones. But the dead don’t want to leave; they’re having too much fun partying and dancing.

Highway’s brother René, a celebrated dancer, died of AIDS in 1990. Since then Highway has lost a sister and both his parents. “I’m at that age when death becomes part of the rhythm of your life,” says Highway, 56. The opera was an opportunity to celebrate the Native view of mortality.

“I was taught by Catholic missionaries in Northern Manitoba,” says Highway, “and I’ve come to realize how alien Christian theo-logy is, how successful it was in terrorizing us. It teaches us to suffer in this life, to wait for something better in the afterlife — perhaps. You know, my mother played poker every day and smoked all her life, both sins. Is she supposed to be a withered skeleton dressed in rags in hell? That’s just creepy.

“Imagine God as a woman, nature as a female presence, who has put us here on earth to have a wonderful time, not to suffer.

“Native myths see death as the translation of energy to another form. The dead are still with us. Death is a miracle, like birth in reverse.”

“What I loved was the universality of the myth and characters,” says Hui. “This story about death and longing for our loved ones transcends culture and time.” The Montreal-based Hui found much to admire in Highway’s poetic libretto: its rhythmic nature, imagery and humour. “I love the impishness of the Trickster.”

The peripatetic Highway, trained as a classical pianist, seems an ideal librettist. His English works, like hit plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta’ Move to Kapuskasing and the novel Kiss of the Fur Queen, have an irresistible rhythm. But Pimooteewin, sung in Cree with an English-speaking narrator, offers Toronto audiences a rare opportunity to experience his first language.

“Cree offers a remarkable sound universe. Just think of Canadian place names: Winnipeg Manitoba Saskatoon Saskatchewan,” Highway says, rattling them off without pausing. “That’s jazz.”

Highway won’t be in town for the premiere, he’s currently touring South America with his longtime partner Raymond. They usually divide time between a home in the south of France and a cottage in Northern Ontario. Highway is currently working on his next novel and finds the social whirl in Toronto gets in the way of writing. “I was dying of laughter in Toronto,” he says. “Think about the people who like to party the most: You have the gay community, the theatre community and the Native community. When you have all three it’s too much.”