Q & A: Co-Directors Joel Ivany & Reneltta Arluk on ‘Messiah Complex,’ A Revolutionary Approach to Handel’s Masterpiece

By David Salazar

Handel’s “Messiah” is ubiquitous with the holiday season. Everywhere you look, opera companies and major choral ensembles are revving up to showcasing this towering masterpiece. Even the pandemic has not slowed down the tradition, with companies turning to unique approaches to the work as a means of sustaining the holiday spirit.

Then there’s the “Messiah Complex,” a collaboration between Against the Grain’s  Theatre Founder and Artistic Direcor Joel Ivany and Banff Centre’s Director of Indigenous Arts Reneltta Arluk (and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra). The new interpretation not only features artists from across Canada, but it will present the famed work in a wide array of languages including Arabic, Dene, English, French, Inuktitut, and Southern Tutchone; the sole intent is to truly express the diversity throughout Canada.

OperaWire had a chance to speak with Arluk and Ivany about this new production and what it meant for them to take on Handel’s most renowned work.

OperaWire: What was the inspiration for this new approach to the Messiah?

Joel Ivany: To be very blunt, there were two events that inspired this new approach.

One: COVID. It has decimated the performing arts. While we’ve seen the return of many industries in some form, the performing arts have not returned with live experiences. Several companies are taking their art online, and Against the Grain Theatre felt that there was an opportunity to do something new and unique. The other event was Black Lives Matter. We saw global protests which inspired me to look inward and see if I could enact some change within our industry.

I had approached Reneltta Arluk (Director of Indigenous Arts at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity) to see if Indigenous Arts would be interested in partnering with us on this project as we had several Indigenous singers lined up.  She suggested that it would be more effective and the right thing to do by having a co-director for the project who was Indigenous. Reneltta and I have several colleagues and friends who were on this project and the next step of having Reneltta work with us was inevitable and extremely easy. It was a joy to have her on board. This gave us the base for what we hoped was a successful film project. One that addresses some of the systemic issues in classical music, but also points us towards unity and reconciliation.

OW: The Messiah is a prominent piece hundreds of years later and it is a fixture of the holiday season. What is your favorite part about the Messiah? What makes it such an enduring and special work, in your eyes?

JI: My favorite part of Messiah is the humanity within the music.  I am drawn to how real the music comes across, how dramatic it is and how natural it is.  Handel writes very clearly and beautifully.  His music is deceptively difficult, but lifts us up, allows us to mediate and also feel.

What makes it so enduring is how accessible it is.  The melodies are timeless and tuneful.  We associate special visuals and memories with the sounds of the music.  We’re hoping that by contextualizing it in a new way, and with new translations and interpretations we will both see and hear the music in a new way.  This year, 2020 has been difficult and as we come to the end of it, we’ll need to reflect and also look forward.

OW: What were the greatest challenges in putting together this production?

Reneltta Arluk: Time zones. Just kidding.

One of the challenges was ensuring that the singers’ visionary needs were being met with the filmmakers all through Zoom and email. For the seven shoots I directed, I was only able to be there in person for two, due to COVID restrictions. I am primarily a theatre director so I can envision and create the vision in the room with the actors and designers. Through this process, I relied heavily on storyboarding and email communication with the filmmakers to ensure the vision was held. It was. All the images and short videos I’ve seen so far are stunning.

OW: How did you go about bringing together the soloists for the project? 

JI: I’ve described this process as a bit of Tetris. Instead of the traditional 4 soloists, we’ve engaged a soloist and choir from every province and territory across our land.

It meant going through the score and finding the best music (it’s all good) to land at approximately 70 minutes of music.  Then looking at soloists and where they were from and could they say a particular number.  As singers came on board, we started checking off the different provinces and territories until we had representation all over.

For many of the soloists, I had previous relationships, which made it easier. However, for some it was a joy to discover new singers, Indigenous singers, and those who needed a bit more explanation of what we were trying to do.

Thankfully we have a wonderful representation of cultures, people and artistry.  I feel it really represents what AtG is hoping to be for our industry.

From left: soloist Rihab Chaieb, AtG Executive Director Robin Whiffen, soloists Elliot Madore, Jonathon Adams, Miriam Khalil, and AtG Founder and Artistic Director Joel Ivany. Photo by Eamon Mac Mahon. Toronto, October, 2020.


OW: This version will be in several languages. What inspired this decision? How does affect the structure of the piece?

RA: The use of Indigenous language is a compelling component of this production. There are no direct translations to Handel’s Messiah in Indigenous language so each singer approached the text through interpretation of spirit. Deantha has a great connection to her text as it resonates with the music her father sang. There are passages of text that were translated in his time so the opportunity to sing this text in Inuktitut was a heartfelt one.

For Diyet in the the Yukon, she worked with her grandmother to translate her text into Southern Tutchone. The action of praising Zion isn’t in the language so the translation became about the sun rising and setting on the earth. That the sun is the spirit that blesses. Isn’t that a stunning image? For Leela Gilday, she worked with her community to translate her passage into Sahtu Dene. The focus Leela took was Water is Life. She interpreted the resurrection of Christ to the transformation of water. How it nourishes us. Such grounded teachings. Inspiring.

OW: What was the experience of committing this work to film? What have you learned about opera and music-making in the context of cinema? How does it change a work like the Messiah and your approach to it?  

JI: Personally, I have been motivated by this experience.  The process has been unlike anything I’ve ever done.  From recording the Toronto Symphony Orchestra before a lockdown, to then adding singers to the orchestra tracks (which have been mixed and sound seamless) to then filming the soloists in an outdoor element with that track as a guide has been incredible.  It’s possible!

We are able to see the performers in new ways.  We are able to hear the text and music in new ways and we can engage in a work that is sacred and special for many people in new ways, which will hopefully lead to newer audiences who may be open to this idea. 

OW: What do you want audiences to take away from this unique experience? How do you think this will change their experience of this masterpiece?

RA: The process has been wonderful. Each soloist has brought so much of themselves to the production that it becomes more than Messiah but a personal telling. I have gotten to know these artists through their voice and their story. I am humbled by that. What I look forward to seeing once it all comes together is the landscape of which these soloists have shared. This country is so vast and beautiful. The singing with the visual array of each region in this land, I believe will be a highlight.

OW: After this experience, are you planning any other projects in this vein?

JI: Short answer, yes. We have been producing consistent content through the pandemic, but this project has elevated the production elements that we’ve been working with.  We’ve been able to pivot, adapt and excel in some areas because we are able to text and experiment.  We can’t wait to share more and work towards inspiring our audience and those around the world who may tune in to what we are doing.


Behind the ScenesInterviews