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Home Racing A Polarizing Canadian 'Messiah' Shows How Pandemic Is Shaking Up Culture

A Polarizing Canadian ‘Messiah’ Shows How Pandemic Is Shaking Up Culture

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As the camera pans over a pristine landscape in Alberta, Jesus is reimagined as an Indigenous person who embodies both male and female spirits and is fighting big oil interests.

A Black mezzo-soprano is filmed in a graffiti-splattered alleyway in Toronto, conveying angst over the recent police killings of Black people in the United States. “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” she sings.

As I recently watched these scenes in a rousing and decidedly Canadian version of Handel’s “Messiah” gaining notice around the world, I was struck by one bright spot during this pandemic. While we Canadians grapple with isolation and Zoom fatigue, our forced confinement is also pushing artists and musicians to be more creative.

The 80-minute film “Messiah/Complex” — the brainchild of the Toronto-based indie opera company Against the Grain, in collaboration with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra — also reinterprets Handel’s work from the perspective of a gay man in Vancouver and a Muslim woman in a head scarf in Montreal. The production is being streamed, free, on YouTube until the end of the month.

[Read: A ‘Messiah’ for the Multitudes, Freed From History’s Bonds]

The revamping of this holiday classic comes as artists and cultural institutions across Canada, buffeted by the pandemic, have been seeking out new ways to express themselves.

Quebec’s struggling Cirque du Soleil produced a moving video of circus artists in confinement, including a mime desperately trying to escape from home. The National Ballet of Canada has showcased its dancers in isolation. A group of Montreal hip-hop artists have incorporated the coronavirus into their work, asking the all-important question: What rhymes with Purell? Museums across the country have been trying to make exhibitions come alive online, like this virtual tour of lighthouses on Prince Edward Island.

ImageThe pandemic has pushed institutions across the country to be more creative, including Montreal's Cirque du Soleil. Pictured here is Olivier Sylvestre, 29, on his German wheel in a Montreal park.
The pandemic has pushed institutions across the country to be more creative, including Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil. Pictured here is Olivier Sylvestre, 29, on his German wheel in a Montreal park.Credit…Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times

In the case of “Messiah/Complex,” it was the soaring music that ultimately captured my imagination. The production is also timely, recasting “The Messiah” as a multicultural anthem for the era of the Black Lives Matter movement. The work features singers of color from across the country and reinterprets the famed oratorio in six languages — including Arabic, French, Dene, and Inuttitut.

However good its intentions, messing with Handel’s beloved “Messiah,” a holiday rite chronicling Christ’s birth and resurrection, can be perilous, given its place as a totem of Western culture. For centuries, the oratorio, which first premiered in Dublin in 1742, has been the seasonal highlight of choirs and orchestras across the world, its exultant “Hallelujahs” an embodiment of Christmas itself.

Canadian luminaries, including the writer Margaret Atwood, have praised “Messiah/Complex,” which grapples with heady themes such as Islamophobia, climate change and colonization. But after my story about the production was published in The Times, the work also came under criticism.

Writing in The National Review, the American conservative magazine, Kevin D. Williamson likened the production to hijacking “medieval Catholic imagery for an episode of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.'” The production, he wrote, was the “silly repurposing of Messiah in the service of cheap and illiterate identity politics.” Others called it sacrilegious.

Matthew Loden, chief executive of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, told me that taking on a paradigm-busting “Messiah” had been particularly daring at a time when people, unhinged by a pandemic, were “looking, misty-eyed, to the past.” Nevertheless, he said, the pandemic, while forcing his financially strained orchestra to cancel its 2020-21 season, was also an opportunity to experiment with new artistic forms and to attract a larger and captive global audience, stuck at home.

With concert halls shuttered, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has, for example, been trying new ways to connect with audiences, including musicians giving individual live 30-minute video-call performances of Beethoven, folk music or popular songs like “Fly Me to the Moon” to isolated senior citizens at home or in nursing homes.

“Messiah/Complex” opens with Spencer Britten, a gay biracial Chinese tenor, who is shown wearing six-inch-high stilettos. He told me he had fashioned his segment as an affirmation of gay pride as well as an exhortation to the world, including his tut-tutting conservative Chinese aunties, to accept him for who he is.

“It was my biggest pop diva fantasy being filmed,” he told me, expressing the hope that Handel, who was adept at understanding the social mores of his era, would have appreciated a revamping of “The Messiah” for modern times.

“Messiah/Complex” also seeks to empower Indigenous voices, among them singers in Yukon, the Northwestern Territories, Labrador and Alberta.

Jonathon Adams, a Cree-Metis singer from Edmonton, reimagines “The Messiah” as a commentary on the climate change crisis, contrasting a belching oil refinery in Alberta with a natural landscape under threat.

The singer, who identifies as “they,” said recasting Handel’s music in the voice of Indigenous people had been a way to grapple with European colonizers who, in the past, had used classical music as a means of indoctrination.

“It’s an occupation, it’s a takeover of a Eurocentric white art form,” they said. “Indigenous artists occupying the piece is powerful and radical.”


Image

A coronavirus testing site in Montreal over the holiday season. Some Canadian politicians have come under fire after taking tropical vacations during the pandemic.Credit…Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press
  • Have you been dismayed by the recent reports of Canadian politicians taking tropical vacations during a pandemic? My colleague Catherine Porter wrote on the backlash the revelations have provoked in Canadians stuck at home.

  • The Quebec government this week unveiled a monthlong, provincewide curfew that will require Quebecers to remain indoors from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. beginning Saturday. It is the first Canadian province to impose a provincewide curfew since the pandemic began.

  • Hockey-loving Canadians hankering to commune with the country’s beloved sport are finding an outlet in online hockey forums and Zoomcasts, some of which feature hockey greats, according to this story by my colleague Curtis Rush.

  • The Times reports on a new website called Not Amazon, created by a Torontonian who wanted to support small, independent businesses shaken by the pandemic. The website has attracted more than half a million page views and has expanded to include 4,000 businesses across Toronto, Calgary, Halifax and Vancouver.

  • Hankering for an escape from the doldrums of confinement? The Travel section suggests a pretend trip to Quebec City — from the confines of home.


We’re eager to have your thoughts about this newsletter and events in Canada in general. Please send them to nytcanada@nytimes.com.

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