As part of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sunday, September 30, Innu soprano Elisabeth St-Gelais will perform the world premiere of the work Rien ne tuera ma lumière by Anishinaabe composer Barbara Assiginaak, based on a text by Innu poet Maya Cousineau Mollen. Claudine Jacques, Bourgie Hall's Institutional Outreach Manager, met with her to discuss her upcoming performances.
Claudine J. Your performances are part of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and you describe yourself as an Innu soprano. What is the importance of this day for you?
Elisabeth St-G. This day holds a great significance for me: by celebrating this day together, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, this is proof that we have taken a step forward and that there are people who listen to us and are willing to learn by being around us. This is a tangible symbol of reconciliation.
Claudine J. In what ways can music participate in the reconciliation process between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, heal wounds, and contribute to a better understanding on both sides?
Elisabeth St-G. Art in general can spark all sorts of emotions, including those, unsuspected, that we do not believe we possess. For me, this is where the power of art lies: being able to heal traumas that are greater than us and nourish ourselves with a great feeling of compassion.
Claudine J. This is not the first time that you have sung compositions by Barbara Assiginaak: how would you describe her music?
Elisabeth St-G. Yes, and I am very lucky! Barbara's music is not easy to learn, but when you listen to it, everything makes perfect sense. For the public, this is a magical moment because she is an absolutely phenomenal composer. The sounds of nature and the effects it produces are ever present in her works: her spirit, very committed to her Anishinaabe culture, is also evident throughout. It's beautiful and very intelligent.
Claudine J. As an Innu soprano, why is it important for you to emphasize your Indigenous roots, and how do these in turn influence your art?
Elisabeth St-G. I don't think I need to emphasize my indigenous roots: I am simply myself, and myself being an Innu from Pessamit, with my culture and the strength of my ancestors flowing in my veins, my artistic personality is inherently infused with it, without accent.
Claudine J. Are there any Indigenous role models who have influenced you during your personal, professional and musical journey? Do you believe that yourself can be this positive influence for young indigenous people today?
Elisabeth St-G. I strongly hope to inspire young people from First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities to pursue their dreams and, above all, to ensure that they believe in themselves. Because I believe in them: and if I can do it, then they can, too. Indigenous people possess strengths that are larger than life.
Claudine J. What does this work mean to you, personally, and what do you think is its importance for Indigenous classical music?
Elisabeth St-G. The piece is deeply moving, even somewhat difficult. Its importance for Indigenous music lies in its honesty. It’s a piece that can stir up a lot of pain, but which is also thought-provoking. I hope it will be cherished and interpreted with care.
Claudine J. The work was composed by a woman, set to a text written by a woman poet. The work of art by Georges Segal, hosted at the MMFA, and which inspired the text and the music, is very dark: it also represents a woman, seated alone on a bed. What are your thoughts regarding this focus on women?
Elisabeth St-Gelais. It inspires in me a reflection similar to the one I have regarding the place granted to minorities within the artistic community. It is very important to undertake this sort of approach, until it is viewed as normal. “Normal” for me does not imply that it is not unique, but simply that choosing women or people from cultural minorities to manage and create cultural projects in Canada will now be anchored in our practices.
Watch Elisabeth St-Gelais's performance during the 2021-2022 Wirth Vocal Prize.
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