Indians on Vacation

An opera based on the Thomas King novel of the same name.

Composed by: Ian Cusson

Libretto by: Royce Vavrek

Based on the book by Thomas King

Starring: Marion Newman, Mezzo-soprano; Grant Youngblood, Baritone

Language: English

Developed in partnership with Edmonton Opera

A poignant and comedic slice-of-life of a contemporary, middle-aged indigenous couple.

We proudly announce Indians on Vacation, a new opera based on the novel by Thomas King composed by Ian Cusson with a libretto by Royce Vavrek. AtG, in partnership with Edmonton Opera and supported by the Yukon Arts Centre. While still in development, we are commissioning the work to be premiered in 2025.

Originally developed as a part of Edmonton Opera’s Wild Rose Project, this mini-opera adaptation of Thomas King’s novel will be expanded into a full opera starring Marion Newman as Mimi and Grant Youngblood as Bird.

In Thomas King’s Indians on Vacation, we meet a contemporary Indigenous couple: Bird and Mimi. We find the couple on a trip through Europe they decided to take after discovering a trove of old postcards from Mimi’s late Uncle Leroy, who absconded to Europe with a family heirloom 100 years ago. As the couple ventures across Europe, trying to unravel the mystery of Uncle Leroy, Bird confronts his inner demons.

A Cross-Canada Collaboration

Indians on Vacation will be developed over the next few years, receiving several workshops and presentations between the Yukon Arts Centre, AtG in Toronto, and Edmonton Opera. to help bring the work to life. We invite our community to follow along as we grow this project from a 10 minute scene to a fully-stage, 70-minute production.

Indians on Vacation is in its early stages of development, with a proposed premiere date in 2025.

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“You know you’re only old if you want to be.”

― Thomas King, Indians on Vacation

Cast & Creative Team

Ian Cusson

Composer

Ian Cusson is a composer of art song, opera and orchestral work. Of Métis (Georgian Bay Métis Community) and French Canadian descent, his work explores Canadian Indigenous experience including the history of the Métis people, the hybridity of mixed-racial identity, and the intersection of Western and Indigenous cultures.

He studied composition with Jake Heggie (San Francisco) and Samuel Dolin, and piano with James Anagnoson at the Glenn Gould School. He is the recipient of the Chalmers Professional Development Grant, and grants through the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, the Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council.

Ian was an inaugural Carrefour Composer-in-Residence with the National Arts Centre Orchestra for 2017-2019 and was Composer-in-Residence for the Canadian Opera Company for 2019-2021. He is a Co-artistic Director of Opera in the 21st Century at the Banff Centre and the recipient of the 2021 Jan V. Matejcek Classical Music Award from SOCAN and the 2021 Johanna Metcalf Performing Arts Prize. Ian is an Associate Composer of the Canadian Music Centre and a member of the Canadian League of Composers.
He lives in Oakville with his wife and four children.

Royce Vavrek

Librettist

Royce Vavrek is a Canada-born, Brooklyn-based librettist and lyricist who has been called “the indie Hofmannsthal” (The New Yorker) a “Metastasio of the downtown opera scene” (The Washington Post), “an exemplary creator of operatic prose” (The New York Times), and “one of the most celebrated and sought after librettists in the world” (CBC Radio). His opera “Angel’s Bone” with composer Du Yun was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

With composer Missy Mazzoli he wrote “Song from the Uproar,” premiered by Beth Morrison Projects in 2012, and subsequently seen in multiple presentations around the country. Their second opera, an adaptation of Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves,” premiered at Opera Philadelphia, co-commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects, and directed by James Darrah to critical acclaim in September of 2016. The work won the 2017 Music Critics Association of North America award for Best New Opera and was nominated for Best World Premiere at the 2017 International Opera Awards. A new production premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in the summer of 2019, produced by Scottish Opera and Opera Ventures, helmed by Tony Award-winning director Tom Morris and earned star Sydney Mancasola a coveted Herald Angel Award for her performance. Their next opera, an adaptation of Karen Russell’s short story “Proving Up,” was commissioned and presented by Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha and The Miller Theatre in 2018, was a finalist for the MCANA Best New Opera Award of that year. They are currently developing a grand opera for Opera Philadelphia and the Norwegian National Opera based on an original story by two-time Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Jordan Tannahill, as well as an adaptation of George Saunders’ Booker Prize-winning novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” for The Metropolitan Opera.

Teaming up with Swedish composer Mikael Karlsson, Royce wrote the story and text for two dance projects, “Crypto,” choreographed by Guillaume Côté for Côté Dance and “Evidence of It All,” choreographed by Drew Jacoby for SFDanceworks, featuring narration by the Academy Award-nominated actress Rosamund Pike. They are currently developing two grand operas: an adaptation of Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” to premiere at the Royal Swedish Opera in 2023, and “Fanny and Alexander,” working alongside creative partner Ingmar Bergman, Jr. to musicalize his late father’s classic film for La Monnaie de Munt in 2024, in a production to be directed by Ivo van Hove. Both operas are to feature renowned mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, for whom Mikael and Royce wrote the song cycle “So We Will Vanish,” premiered by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in 2021 to critical acclaim.

His collaboration with composer David T. Little led Heidi Waleson of the Wall Street Journal to proclaim them “one of the most exciting composer-librettist teams working in opera today.” In April of 2016 they premiered their first grand opera, “JFK,” at Fort Worth Opera, a co-commission with American Lyric Theater and Opéra de Montréal that was called “ravishing” (Opera News), earning a ten-star review in Opera Now Magazine. This followed the success of their first opera, “Dog Days,” which received its world premiere in September of 2012 at Peak Performances @ Montclair, in a production co-produced by Beth Morrison Projects and directed by American maverick Robert Woodruff. The work was celebrated as the Classical Music Event of the year by Time Out New York and a standout opera of recent decades by The New York Times. They are currently developing an original work for the Metropolitan Opera through the Met/LCT commissioning program.

Royce has also worked extensively with composer Paola Prestini, first on the song cycle "Yoani," inspired by the blog posts of Yoani Sanchez, and then on "The Hubble Cantata," a virtual reality oratorio produced by VisionIntoArt/National Sawdust in association with Beth Morrison Projects. They recently presented the workshop premiere of “Silent Light,” an opera based on the Cannes Jury Prize-winning film by Carlos Reygadas at the Banff Centre for Creativity, a collaboration with the director Thaddeus Strassberger, and are currently working on a new opera inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” They are also developing "Film Stills," a project for mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti that dramatizes four of Cindy Sherman's iconic photographs through musical monologues composed by Paola, Missy Mazzoli, Nico Muhly and Ellen Reid, and directed by R.B. Schlather. Royce and Paola's collaboration can be further heard on the AIDS Quilt Songbook: Sing for Hope recording, where their song "Union," as sung by Isabel Leonard, is featured.

In 2014 Royce premiered “27,” his first collaboration with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Created for renowned mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, the work brought to life Gertrude Stein’s famous salon at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris. Mark Ray Rinaldi of the Denver Post wrote that the opera “tells a great American story, about Gertrude Stein, as well as opera in the 21st century.” The opera was subsequently presented by Pittsburgh Opera, MasterVoices at New York City Center, Michigan Opera Theater, Opéra de Montréal and Opera Las Vegas. In 2017 their adaptation of Gail Rock’s Christmas classic “The House Without a Christmas Tree” for Houston Grand Opera was premiered to critical acclaim.

Other recent and upcoming projects include “Strip Mall” with Matt Marks for the Los Angeles Philharmonic; “Epistle Mass” with Julian Wachner for Trinity Wall Street, “Midwestern Gothic” with Josh Schmidt for Signature Theatre, Virginia; “Naamah’s Ark” with Marisa Michelson for MasterVoices; “O Columbia” with Gregory Spears for HGOco; “Knoxville: Summer of 2015” with Ellen Reid for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and National Sawdust; “The Wild Beast of the Bungalow” with Rachel Peters for Oberlin Conservatory; “Jacqueline” with Luna Pearl Woolf for Tapestry New Opera; “Adoration” (based on the film by Atom Egoyan) with Mary Kouyoumdjian for Beth Morrison Projects; “The Cremation of Sam McGee” with Matthew Ricketts, supported by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts; and “Agnes” with Daníel Bjarnason for the Icelandic Opera.

Royce is co-Artistic Director of The Coterie, an opera-theater company founded with Tony-nominee Lauren Worsham. He holds a BFA in Filmmaking and Creative Writing from Concordia University’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema in Montreal and an MFA from the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at New York University. He is an alum of American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program.

Marion Newman

Mimi

A critically acclaimed mezzo­soprano of Kwagiulth and Stó:lō First Nations with English, Irish and Scottish heritage, Marion Newman was born in Bella Coola and grew up in Sooke, BC. She is one of Canada’s most accomplished singers in repertoire from Vivaldi to Vivier. As Carmen, the Irish Examiner noted “she sparked an electricity which totally engrossed the audience with her superbly sinuous sexuality... Prudes may raise their eyebrows at the sensuality of this Carmen; theatregoers will clamour for more.”. Nominated for a Dora Award for her leading role in the world premiere of Shanawdithit (Nolan/Burry) with Toronto’s Tapestry Opera, Ian Ritchie wrote “she invests her character with towering dignity and courage”. Marion portrayed Dr. Wilson in the premiere of Missing (Clements/Current) with Vancouver City Opera/Pacific Opera Victoria, which gives voice, in English and Gitxsan, to the story of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women. In 2023, Marion debuts with Anchorage Opera in their production of Missing. Highlights for the 2022/23 season include Cantaloube’s Chants d’Auvergne with Vancouver Island Symphony, Messiah with Vancouver Bach Choir, Bruckner’s Te Deum and the world premiere of Stephanie Martin’s Water, with Grand Philharmonic Choir and Kitchener­Waterloo Symphony. Recent guest appearances include Mozart’s Requiem, a digital co­production with Canadian Opera Company and Against the Grain Theatre, The Echoes Project with Gryphon Trio, and Five Songs on Poems of Marilyn Dumont (Cusson) with the New Orford String Quartet, for Cecilia Concerts in Halifax. Marion has sung many works that speak to her First Nations identity, including a Canada­wide tour of Ancestral Voices (Tovey) with the Vancouver Symphony and Nuyamł­ił Kulhulmx ­ Singing the Earth (Höstman/Robinson) with the Victoria and Vancouver Symphonies and Continuum Concerts in Toronto. Marion created the role of Dawn with Welsh National Opera in the July 2022 world premiere of Migrations, with stories by five writers based on their personal experiences of migrations and working with refugees. Also with Welsh National Opera, Marion stars in the premiere of The Shoemaker, a fusion of Latin American, Persian and Western classical musical influences, and performs in Migrations UK tour. In addition to her extensive performing career, Marion is a Co­Founder of Amplified Opera and the host of CBC’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.
Grant Youngblood

Bird

Mr. Youngblood has performed with numerous major and regional opera companies, including The Metropolitan Opera (Capriccio), San Francisco Opera (Sharpless in Madama Butterfly), New York City Opera (Scarpia in Tosca, title role of Don Giovanni, Sharpless, Germont in La Traviata, Escamillo in Carmen); Virginia Opera (the title role of Rigoletto), Conte di Luna in Il Trovatore, Germont, Silvio in I Pagliacci); Florida Grand Opera (Silvio, Rigoletto, Ashby in La Fanciulla del West); Opéra de Montréal (Amonasro in Aïda, Michele in Il Tabarro); Dayton Opera (Amonasro, Iago in Otello); Austin Lyric Opera (Germont); Washington National Opera (Dappertutto in Les contes d'Hoffmann); Glimmerglass Opera (Thoäs in Iphigénie en Tauride); and Central City Opera (John Proctor in The Crucible, Germont, Sharpless, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, Horace Tabor in The Ballad of Baby Doe, Olin Blitch in Susannah; the Four Villains in Les Contes d’Hoffmann); Opera Theater of St. Louis and Madison Opera.

Among his other engagements in the 2021/2022 season Mr. Youngblood performs his signature role of Germont in La Traviata for Opera Southwest, returns to Lyric Opera of Chicago to cover the role of Scarpia, makes a company debut at Opera Philadelphia, and performs and records new chamber music by composer Jennifer Margaret Barker.

Concert engagements have included appearances with the Dallas Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Florida Philharmonic, the Chautauqua Symphony, the Louisville Orchestra, the Naples Philharmonic, the Delaware Symphony, the Jacksonville Symphony, the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, and the Bucharest Philharmonic, among others. Mr. Youngblood has been praised as well for his exceptionally expressive artistry in recital, with appearances throughout the United States.

Thomas King

Thomas King was born in 1943 in Sacramento, California and is of Cherokee, Greek and German descent. He obtained his PhD from the University of Utah in 1986. He is known for works in which he addresses the marginalization of American Indians, delineates “pan-Indian” concerns and histories, and attempts to abolish common stereotypes about Native Americans. He taught Native American Studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, and at the University of Minnesota. He is currently a Professor of English at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. King has become one of the foremost writers of fiction about Canada’s Native people.

Meet the Characters

Who is Mimi?

Mimi is a middle-aged Indigenous woman of Blackfoot descent. She is energetic, enthusiastic, and humorous and frequently tries to encourage Bird to express more joy. Behind her lively persona lies a woman hungry for more adventure and intrigue in her current life.

Who is Bird?

Blackbird Mavrias or “Bird” is a middle-aged man partly of Cherokee descent and a long-time partner of Mimi. He is also a writer but is stalled in his craft. He exhibits many moods, ranging from depression, despondency, distress, and discontent, all of which Mimi calls his “demons.” As their vacation goes on, Bird is challenged by these demons.

“No one needs a watch. What we need is time.”

― Thomas King, Indians on Vacation

Photos

📸 All photos from the Wild Rose Project’s first iteration of Indians on Vacation  courtesy of Edmonton Opera — by Madison Kerr

The Story So Far

Edmonton, Alberta – 2021

The Wild Rose Opera Project—a series of four short operatic works that each explore mental health issues through characters with ties to the Alberta landscape—premiered online on November 19, 2021. Indians on Vacation was one of those four works, and where the idea was born.

Dawson City, Yukon – 2023

In January 2023, The Yukon Arts centre invited us to come work on the first workshop of the “expanded” version of Indians on Vacation in Dawson City.

This marks the first milestone in growing this work into a full-length opera.

Our AtG team travelled with Ian Cusson, Royce Vavrek, Marion Newman, Grant Youngblood, Holly Kroeker and Cosette Justo Valdés to the Yukon, where they worked, explored, dreamed, and shared their progress with the inspiring community of Dawson City.

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