Northern Indigenous voices join national Handel’s Messiah show

Last modified: November 23, 2020 at 9:49am

A preview of the Messiah/Complex show.

An upcoming virtual – and entirely free – production of Handel’s Messiah is breaking new linguistic and cultural ground, placing BIPOC artists front-and-centre.

Messiah/Complex, from Toronto opera company Against the Grain Theatre, features 12 singers from across Canada backed by a pre-recorded Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

The show will re-interpret Handel’s Messiah into six different languages. Each piece will be separately filmed.


The final online show will include performances from singers such as Canada’s “Queen of R&B Soul” Jully Black in Toronto, Métis singer Julie Lumsden in Manitoba, and tenor Spencer Britton in BC.

OK, this is your text. When I interpret the text through my Indigenous perspective, this is actually how I interpret it.Reneltta Arluk

Northern talent in the show includes Looee Arreak from Nunavut and Deantha Edwards from northern Newfoundland, who each sing a song in Inuktitut, while Diyet van Lieshout from the Yukon sings in Southern Tutchone.

Dene singer-songwriter Leela Gilday represents the NWT.

“That’s something I embrace and that I’m very proud of,” she says with a laugh when asked how she feels about it. “So, I’m very happy to.”


Behind the scenes, co-director Reneltta Arluk is a Dene, Cree, and Inuvialuk artist from Fort Smith and the founder of Akpik Theatre in the NWT.

Arluk, currently the director of Indigenous Arts at Alberta’s Banff Centre of Arts, got involved after performers expressed a desire to see an Indigenous person at the helm.

“It’s pretty humbling, to be honest,” she says, “because that means creating space for Indigenous voices in all art spaces is starting to resonate and reverberate through the different communities.”

Originally conceived by Against the Grain artistic director Joel Ivany, Messiah/Complex is designed to break down the Judeo-Christian roots of Handel’s music and re-tell the tale with diverse voices, according to Arluk.


“It has a really good intention of wanting to have these Indigenous-led stories within a mosaic of Handel’s Messiah,” she says.

Reneltta Arluk, co-director of Handel’s Messiah/Complex. Photo: Submitted

The project extends beyond replicating the story. By translating songs into different languages and giving artists freedom to explore themes and ideas, Arluk says, the production becomes completely new.

“There’s something very powerful about oral tradition, and oral stories and oral knowledge, cultural knowledge, ancestral knowledge, that reverberates through the generations,” Arluk says.

“When you can look at the text with the ancestral knowledge you have or the cultural perspective you have… and change how you imagine it, how you interpret it, and apply it to the deeper knowledge that is within the land and within your genes, then something different happens.”

Arluk says applying that approach turns the piece into a conversation between cultures and worldviews.

“It’s like OK, this is your text, and when I read the text and I interpret the text through my Indigenous perspective, this is actually how I interpret it,” she says.

“I interpret it as spirit. I interpret it as transformation. I interpret it as a humbleness and respect to environment and land, and that spirit is in everything without… this Christian type of perspective to it.

“That actually is the most interesting conversation, because that is representative of who we are now in this country.”

Operatic style

Gilday sings an aria titled I Know My Redeemer Liveth that she translated into Dene with the help of her mother, aunties, and other community members.

Gilday says the experience of re-interpreting the piece and singing in her language was deeply meaningful for her as a Dene artist, and in line with the direction she’s been heading as an artist.

She’s been working on a song project in Dene ke with four language experts and co-writers since March – though she originally conceived the idea 10 years ago.

With Handel’s Messiah, it’s a bit different, Gilday points out.

“Translation is not easy because often, when you get into the realm of lyrics and poetry, there are no ‘one-to-one’ translations,” she says.

“There’s a lot of creative leeway for the people who are working on the translation. Everybody weighed in on how they would say it because there’s no one way to express one certain phrase… so I was really grateful that they all shared their time and energy to help me.”

Some performers in the December 2020 production of Messiah/Complex.

This “creative leeway,” as Gilday calls it, gave her the chance to explore concepts from the Dene worldview within the song.

“What I focused on in my re-interpretation was transformation, and how important connecting to the land and the earth is,” she explains. “How Creator infuses all of these elements with spirit and how, in my belief, we continue after we die – our spirits live with our Creator.”

Gilday’s performance has already been filmed. Produced by Amos Scott, a Dene filmmaker from Yellowknife, it captures Gilday outside a bush tent, feeding a fire as she sings.

The most challenging part for Gilday? Re-learning to sing in the operatic style, which she once studied but since moved away from in her career.

“When you study opera and sing opera, your voice gets developed in a certain way – and that’s not the direction that I’ve been developing my voice,” she says with a chuckle. “It definitely is pushing my boundaries to sing in an operatic tone.”

Opens December 13

Handel’s Messiah/Complex will premiere online on December 13. The production company has decided to offer the show free of charge “for any soul in need of a musical lift.”

Arluk says the show offers a way for people to remain connected in a difficult time.

“A lot of us are going to be by ourselves, a lot of us are thinking about the safety of our families up north and in some of the places that we won’t be able to go even if we wanted to,” she says.  

“Being able to gather and watch something together – and celebrate each other, our language, our identity, our friends, our family, celebrate the incredible joy that this music will be conveyed to all of us – I’m really looking forward to seeing the stories come to light.”

Tickets for the show are available on Against the Grain Theatre’s website.