The Canadian Opera Company (COC) and National Arts Centre (NAC) have officially co-commissioned Empire of Wild
, an imaginative and enthralling new mainstage opera from composer Ian Cusson and librettist Cherie Dimaline that centres the Georgian Bay Métis community at the heart of its story.
“I am thrilled to be partnering with the National Arts Centre in the creation of this important, contemporary opera,” says COC General Director Perryn Leech.“ Empire of Wild
embodies years of community-rooted work that the Canadian Opera Company has been doing through regular discourse with its Circle of Artists, and marks a tangible response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 Calls to Action
. With this commission, we’re continuing our commitment to Indigenous representation by bringing a collaborative focus to the creation of opera that reflects a wider range of perspectives and lived experiences. We are proud to support the artistic leadership of some of Canada’s most prominent Indigenous directors, designers, composers, and stage crew.”
“It brings me immense pleasure to welcome Ian Cusson back to the COC as composer of this new opera, and I want to extend an especially warm welcome to Cherie Dimaline, joining us as librettist,” continues Leech. “The combined creativity of this pairing is simply off the charts and I look forward to seeing their artistic vision brought to life.”
“The NAC is incredibly proud to co-commission Empire of Wild with the Canadian Opera Company,” says Christopher Deacon, President and CEO of the National Arts Centre. “Over the years, we have collaborated extensively with Ian and are now delighted to be working with Cherie in reimagining this story for the stage. I cannot think of a better way to spotlight Indigenous artistry than having our two organizations come together in support of this project, and I look forward to bringing this unique opera to audiences.”Empire of Wild
will be sung in English and French and premiere in an upcoming COC season. Additional information on dates, as well as the opera’s creative team, casting, and design will be released as details become available.
A supernatural thriller steeped in history and legend
Based on Dimaline’s thrilling 2019 novel of the same name, Empire of Wild
brings the dramatic musical style of grand opera to a riveting, contemporary tale, told through an Indigenous composer, librettist, and creative team. The story is inspired by the legend of the rogarou, a werewolf-like creature that haunts the roads and woods of Indigenous communities, and the opera weaves history, folklore, and intrigue into the story of Joan, a complex and strong Métis woman haunted by the sudden disappearance of her husband Victor. When Joan encounters a mysterious and charismatic preacher who bears an uncanny resemblance to her beloved, she must rely on the traditions of her community to uncover the truth.
“With Empire of Wild
, audiences are in for an evening of music and drama that celebrates everything we love about historic opera while pushing the boundaries of what the art form can say,” says Cusson. "It is especially fitting that during a week where we honour a national commitment to truth and reconciliation that the COC and NAC are announcing this major investment in Indigenous-led, mainstage work. Significant collaborations like this form the bold new future of opera, and I am thrilled to create it with two companies that are leading that charge.”
Meet the opera's creators
has collaborated with some of Canada’s most renowned artists and musical institutions, including being named Composer-in-Residence for the Canadian Opera Company in 2019 and Carrefour Composer for the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) in 2017. Cusson’s most recent operatic work includes Of the Sea
(2023) from Tapestry Opera and Obsidian Theatre, with librettist Kanika Ambrose; COC’s Fantasma
, created with librettist Colleen Murphy in 2022; In Winter
(COC, 2021), a meditative composition with text by Métis writer Katherena Vermette, and—in an important act of healing and reparation—the composition of a new Act Three aria, commissioned by the COC and NAC, for the 1967 opera Louis Riel
which had originally incorporated, without permission, use of sacred laments of the Nisga’a First Nation.
“To be back at the Canadian Opera Company and the National Arts Centre feels like coming home—and getting to work with the stellar COC Orchestra and Chorus, NACO, and NAC Indigenous Theatre on a project of this scale is a dream come true,” continues Cusson. “I’m also thrilled to be working with Cherie, one of the most exciting and celebrated writers of our day. We both also happen to come from the Georgian Bay Metis community and Empire of Wild
takes place on land that our families have lived and died on for generations. Having this level of connection is beyond unique in the operatic collaborative process.”Cherie Dimaline
is a best-selling author who has published 12 books to date and whose award-winning fiction has been anthologized internationally. Her 2017 book, The Marrow Thieves
, won the prestigious Governor’s General Award as well as the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers and has appeared on numerous Book of the Year lists that include The Globe and Mail
, Quill and Quir
e, CBC, and the New York Public Library. With Empire of Wild
, National Public Radio hailed, “Dimaline has crafted something both current and timeless, mythic but personal.”
“Adapting this book for the Canadian Opera Company and National Arts Centre stage, in anticipation of all the incredible talents who will help give it new life, is not merely a retelling, but rather a reimagining,” says Dimaline. “I could not think of a more beautiful art form than opera to pull forward the underlying complexities and aching romance of Empire of Wild
“It’s such a gift to work with Ian on this project,” continues Dimaline. “He brings so much experience and expertise to the project, along with an intimate connection to the story itself. Co-creating with somebody who shares ancestral ties to a uniquely beautiful, deeply spooky land is the experience of a lifetime.”
Empire of Wild
is the eighth mainstage opera commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company since 1950, with Hadrian
, by composer Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor, premiering in 2018. Most recently, the COC debuted a number of world premiere operas at its Canadian Opera Company Theatre that include: Fantasma
by composer Ian Cusson and librettist Colleen Murphy (2022); The Queen In Me
(2022) by Teiya Kasahara 笠原 貞野; and Pomegranate
by composer Kye Marshall and librettist Amanda Hale which enjoyed a sold-out run in June 2023. Aportia Chryptych: A Black Opera for Portia White
, by composer Sean Mayes and librettist HAUI will make its world premiere at the COCT in June 2024. Stay tuned for updates as an eOpera subscriber!