A Canadian First!

In November, Manitoba Opera presents the first full-scale, indigenous led opera, Li Keur: Riel’s Heart of The North

The creative team and cast workshopping Li Keur in August. Photo by G. Ouskun.


Li Keur: Riel’s Heart of the North (pronounced lee cur), the first full-scale Indigenous-led opera presented on a Canadian opera mainstage will open Manitoba Opera’s 2023/24 Season at the Centennial Concert Hall with three performances: November 18, 22, and 24.

This cross-cultural collaboration is a celebration of Métis women, language, and culture. It was conceptualized by Métis poet and librettist Dr. Suzanne M. Steele and co-composed by champion fiddler Alex Kusturok and Neil Weisensel, who is also conducting.

“With Li Keur, I am trying to reconnect so much of that which was lost to my Gaudry, Fayant, Morin, DuCharmes, David, Beauchamps, and Desjardins families, and for so many other Michif families, and that is, each other,” explains Dr. Steele. “Sometime around the 1870s, our vibrant, intact, and prosperous families and communities were cast, scattered like windflowers across the prairies into a century and a half of hard times.

And so, in a way through this work, I try to emulate the Anishinaabe keeper of the medicines, Marie Serpente (named in part for an ancestor of mine), who in this opera — as all our women for centuries and millennia — sews together the violence of men not once, but twice, that is, the violence of the historic. But importantly, I am also trying, as all Indigenous women continue to, sew together our cultures, our webs of family, and from the sometimes ugly in this world, make something beautiful. In this, through words and story, I have tried to bead some of our world for us to share and enjoy together once again and to shine a light on who we are.”

Li Keur places Métis culture, a founding culture of our province, on Manitoba Opera’s mainstage. The Red River jig, which features prominently in the score, along with other traditional and contemporary Métis music by Kusturok, is for the Métis peoples, not only a national anthem, it is a prayer, a celebration, and a compass with which Michifs find their way home. Red River music, born of a specific place and rooted in a specific culture, continue to thrive and with Li Keur this music is celebrated through the power of Métis fiddle, dance, language, and through the operatic voice.

This epic music and song experience features 11 vocal soloists, an adult chorus, a children’s chorus, fiddlers, jigging, dancers, and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

“Working on Li Keur, Riel's Heart of the North has been nothing short of a transformational project for me since I started work on it in 2017,” said composer Neil Weisensel. “Researching and composing this piece has changed how I work, how I teach, and how I see the world. Inspired by Suzanne Steele's powerful and poetic libretto and blessed to be able to collaborate with fellow composer Alex Kusturok, I feel like we have succeeded in creating a unique and entertaining story for Manitoba Opera's mainstage.”

At its heart, this opera seeks to celebrate Métis languages and ways of being. Sung in Southern Michif, French-Michif, Anishinaabemowin, French, and English, the opera’s text was developed with Indigenous language keepers. Li Keur brings these languages, which have survived decades of attempted erasure, back to the centre stage at the heart of this continent. English translations will be projected above the stage at performances.

In this historical, mystic opera, 21st century Joséphine-Marie, through a grandmother's story, is transported to 1870s Montana where she encounters an ancestor, the sharpshooter Josette, a runaway travelling with Riel and the last buffalo brigades. There she falls in love with the young, passionate, Louis Riel, in disguise, on the run from assassins.

The pair confront jealousy, destiny, deprivation, and torment wrought by four shape-shifting Black Geese of Fate, but are comforted by ghost choruses of ancestors, the bison brigades, and the women of their peoples, as they try to salvage a nation and save themselves from total destruction in the burning heart of the continent of the 1870s.

BMO, a proud partner of Manitoba Opera for over a decade, has provided ground-breaking support as the underwriter of Li Keur: Riel’s Heart of the North.

For tickets and more information, go to mbopera.ca or call 204-944-8824.