I Call Myself Princess brings a cultural appropriation story into the spotlight

The century-old story of Indigenous opera singer Tsianina Redfeather and the opera she helped premiere at the Met is fascinating, but the modern framing device doesn't work

I CALL MYSELF PRINCESS by Jani Lauzon (Paper Canoe Projects/Cahoots in association with Native Earth). At the Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas East). Runs to September 30. Pwyc-$30. cahoots.ca. See listing. Rating: NNN

Among other things, Jani Lauzon’s I Call Myself Princess contains a fascinating story about cultural appropriation that is still frustratingly relevant today. (Think of the recent controversy over Robert Lepage’s Kanata.)

The heart of Lauzon’s ambitious, if uneven show is Tsianina Redfeather (Marion Newman), an Indigenous opera singer who worked on – and whose life story helped inspire – the little-known opera Shanewis: The Robin Woman, which played at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera in 1918.

Composed by Charles Wakefield Cadman (Richard Greenblatt) and librettist Nelle Richmond Eberhart (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), Shanewis is – at least from the excerpts heard in the show – problematic, romanticizing or reinforcing certain cultural clichés about white superiority.

Over his long career, Cadman wrote many songs that “borrowed” musical motifs from Indigenous songs.

Also complicating things is the fact that Redfeather was replaced by a white singer for the Met premiere.

What’s intriguing is that we get to see and hear Redfeather’s own thoughts and explanations. For one thing, she was made to feel her race was dying out, so integrating her music into this art form was, she believed, a way to preserve it.

These elements are among the most thoughtful parts of the two-hour show. They’re also highly entertaining, since Greenblatt (2 Pianos, 4 Hands), of course, is a lively pianist, Lancaster is a fine singer and the two get characters whose histories, like Redfeather’s, are equally notable. (Eberhart was the first female librettist to have a work at the Met Cadman was closeted.)

The least successful part of Lauzon’s play is the modern-day story. William (Aaron Wells) is a queer Métis opera singer from Winnipeg who’s on an Indigenous scholarship at U of T when he’s asked to perform in a production of Shanewis. His obsession with the opera – and the ensuing research it precipitates – causes a rift between him and his long-distance boyfriend, Alex (Howard Davis), who’s dealing with his own race and family issues.

Other works have organically linked art from the present and the past – Arcadia, Eternal Hydra – but the transitions are clunkier here, and director Marjorie Chan can’t quite find a consistent tone. William and Alex’s relationship just feels perfunctory.

But there’s still lots to enjoy in the show: the performers Snezana Pesic’s suggestive costumes the eclectic range of music, sensitively overseen by music director Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate.

About that music: the documentation of the songs in the program is a great place to start your own research into this neglected chapter of musical and cultural history.

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