Canada’s first and only Inuk professional classical singer, Deantha Edmunds is a proud resident of Newfoundland and Labrador. She is a two-time Dora Award Nominated performer, singer, actor, and collaborator in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous projects. An urban Inuk, Edmunds aims to empower Indigenous people and share their stories. She is currently writing the libretto and mapping out melodies for the first opera to be sung in English and Inuttitut.
Deantha discusses why this reimagined Messiah/Complex is a chance for her to celebrate the history of classical music and Inuit culture in Nunatsiavut.
“Some history… about 250 years ago, missionaries of the Moravian faith settled on the North Coast of Labrador. With them, they brought hand-written music by Handel, Mozart, Bach, and many other composers. Not many people realize that what we think of as European classical music had its North American premiere in these beautiful, humble churches along the north coast of Labrador, in Inuit communities— yes, Inuit were performing on strings, brass, organs, and singing music from Handel’s Messiah in Inuttitut hundreds of years ago, here in Labrador.”
“I’m the first Inuk professional soprano—but I didn’t grow up knowing about this historical link between classical music and my own Inuit culture. My father did talk about the beautiful choir music that he grew up with, and the old orchestral instruments, which had been brought to the north coast by early missionaries. Now, it’s coming full circle with this production of Messiah/Complex.”
“For my portion, I approached an elder who translated my text for How Beautiful Are The Feet. I had discussed the piece with co-directors Joel Ivany and Reneltta Arluk, and talked about the idea that “beautiful feet” made me think of caribou tracks on the land, setting the path for humans to follow, and making the connection of the earth to the heavens. I feel so humbled and honoured and proud to be able to share this history, and perform in this production of Messiah, that builds on my history.”
“What is also very special about this for me—as the first Inuk professional opera soprano in Canada, is that the Inuit not only learned how to read and write this music, but they changed it over time and transformed it. They recomposed and reinterpreted it to reflect their culture and traditions. And some of those early music manuscripts are still used in Labrador churches. Much of what we know is thanks to a music historian named Tom Gordon.”
“15 years ago, I wrote to Tom Gordon, explaining that I was Inuk, with roots in Labrador, and the first classical singer of Inuit descent in Canada that I knew of. He wrote back, and included an attachment in his email—it was the score of Handel’s I Know My Redeemer Liveth, with the text in Inuttitut. That blew my mind. It turns out that piece had only been performed in church in the community of Hopedale, where my father grew up and attended services.”
“For our video shoot, we wanted to find a place that visually felt like Labrador, where Caribou might be found, and that overlooked the ocean, so it could bring to mind the migration of this music from those missionaries, and how we are all connected. Petty Harbour is about half an hour drive from my home in St. John’s. We chose the top of a mountain over the ocean. I said to Justin, the videographer, ‘Looking out over this ocean— it must have looked similar 10,000 years ago when Inuit were already thriving here in Labrador.’”
Thank you to Deantha Edmunds for contributing her artistic voice and being a part of this project.