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'How do we move forward?': Marion Newman brings truth and reconciliation to classical music

By
Marika Galea

Mezzo-soprano Marion Newman is a highly sought-after performer who also spends her time advising arts organizations on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in their work. But the B.C. singer, who is of Kwagiulth, Stó:lo, English, Irish and Scottish descent, was originally advised to keep her heritage quiet for the sake of her career.

“I actually had a couple of coaches and teachers — very well-meaning people — suggest that I keep my Indigenous heritage quiet because it … might make people not hire me for various different roles,” says Newman, over the phone from Regina. “And I have never agreed with that.”

Newman’s father, aunts, uncles, grandparents and many of her cousins went to residential schools or were taken in the Sixties Scoop. “Some of them found us in adulthood but they were raised outside of their Indigenous families and have worked really hard in their adulthood to find the connection to their origin,” she says.

Her family’s history, combined with a lifelong love of music that began at age five with the piano, is what has fuelled Newman’s decades of work as a fearless storyteller of Indigenous truths in the classical world.

“When I made the switch to voice from piano, a lot of my decision was made because of the words that you get to share with an audience and at that time, I was a teenager, so it was about the poetry,” says Newman. “But at this point, so much of what I’m saying is truth-telling about Indigenous stories, Indigenous perspectives, about how we feel about what has happened and what is continuing to happen — and how do we move forward?

“How do we live comfortable lives with so much truth? And realizing that there are so many people out there that do not understand, and that are not making the effort to learn what our truth is. And it is political for me to choose such repertoire to present to audiences that otherwise might not come across this subject matter.”

Most recently, that focus has propelled Newman to perform in the Regina Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural Forward Currents Festival which aims to “inspire essential conversation about truth and reconciliation” in the Prairie community. For one of her performances, Newman performed Orchestral Songs on Poems of Marilyn Dumont, a song cycle by Métis composer Ian Cusson that sets selections from Métis poet Marilyn Dumont’s collection A Really Good Brown Girl. Newman also performed Ancestral Voices, Bramwell Tovey’s cycle of songs that explores the complex discussions that need to take place around truth and reconciliation — a piece that Tovey composed specifically for Newman.

Below, Newman talks about how Indigenizing classical music just might save it, allyship, and what truth and reconcilliation really mean.


Reviving classical music with Indigenous stories

“There’s the perception that classical music is dead, nobody wants to go to the opera anymore, that it’s all about the past and that it’s really just for old people. Organizations have been searching for ways of advertising to younger audiences, and bringing in repertoire that is more exciting for different parts of society is a really good way of bringing in a different type of audience, of starting conversations…. Companies are realizing that that might be the way to remain relevant.

“It doesn’t just need to be Indigenous issues, but talking about the difficult topics that are floating around that everyone’s a little bit afraid to talk about. Through music, through art we can address those in a palatable way, and deliver the messages with emotion. And that hits people in a different way than reading the news or having conversations might.”

Collaboration, tokenism and the Queen

“I will meet with people, I will have long conversations with them and gauge whether or not they’re willing to learn as they go ... whether or not they’re willing to take advice, and whether they’re willing to do the work to find other Indigenous voices to take some of the weight of that teaching, because it does get exhausting for one person. So when I feel like there is genuine effort and compassion, then I generally will say yes.”

In the case of Ancestral Voices, Tovey asked to keep Newman on as a guide “just to be completely honest with [him] if it [felt like he was] stepping in the wrong direction. And I said sure, that sounds like a proper partnership, and like I will have a say, and I knew I could trust him.... And what he ended up composing has turned out to be one of my favourite things I’ve ever sung. It’s so meaningful and relevant and beautiful.”

Some proposals have been more lacklustre. Newman asked what the terms were of singing the national anthem for Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee gala at Roy Thomson Hall in 2002.

“They were hoping that I would perform [the anthem] in an Indigenous language. And I chose not to do that. I thought that was tokenistic and I also thought it would be odd because there has been so much stamping out of Indigenous language that to just show up when the Queen is here … I just didn’t think that was cool.

“So I just said I will be doing it in English, but I will wear a dress that has Indigenous design on it — because they also were hoping I would wear regalia. I said I didn’t think that was appropriate for the occasion, because that is something I would reserve for a potlatch or a ceremony — and it also seemed tokenistic — but that I would wear a western-style dress with design on it. And that design is a sisiutl, which is a double-headed serpent and when one wears the sisiutl, it serves as a protector… I was like, OK part of me, maybe my English/Irish/Scottish side is super excited to meet the Queen … but in my own way, I quietly refused some of the tokenistic parts of it.”

Coping mechanisms

“I have realized it is important to find ways of addressing emotional exhaustion. Most recently, the week [Colten] Boushie and [Tina] Fontaine's killers were let off, I cried a lot and I had to work hard to find the inspiration to carry on in this type of work with positivity. Luckily I have an incredible support system in my family. My brother and sister and I chat constantly via text and FaceTime about the tough stuff and how we are dealing with it. We also keep each other laughing, which is the best medicine.”

Marion Newman Press Shot 1

On truth

“For a long time, I would meet people who had never heard of a residential school before. And I have had conversations with people who thought I was making stuff up because it was too awful for Canada to be engaged in. Bringing that truth out, letting people know how ugly the truth is ... that is the reason why there are still so many issues, so many problems; the fact that people don’t know that stuff or won’t.

“Truth is ugly and I think it can lead to a better place if people will just take it on.”

And reconciliation

“I think I better know what reconciliation is not. I follow a lot of Indigenous voices on Twitter and there are lots of ideas floating around there that are great, that are helping to define what reconciliation is and isn’t, but I think it’s impossible to have reconciliation before the truth is very, very widely known.

“And I think that reconciliation is also the job of non-Indigenous people to figure out for themselves, to find ways of being good allies; of taking on some of the mantle of the difficult work of bringing the truth forward, of calling out the trolls. Of holding our government’s feet to the fire to say let’s get to the place of equality where we’re honouring agreements that were made a long time ago that were about making sure that Indigenous people have good healthcare, a place to live that was safe and clean, not boil-water advisories for years on end and infested housing.”

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