This past week, Pacific Zen’s Jordan McConnell has been playing his amazing guitar in a Manitoba Opera called Li Keur, Reil’s Heart of the North. Billed as “a celebration of Métis (mixed Indigenous and Euro-American) women, language, and culture,” it is the first full-scale Indigenous-led opera presented on a Canadian mainstage. Jordan accompanied the lead fiddler, together with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

The storyline is narrated by a Métis grandmother, a descendant of French fur trappers (called Voyageurs) and First Nations women, telling the rich tale of family to her granddaughter. More broadly, it is the story of the Métis peoples of Canada. The grandmother, who was sold to an English settler by her father, killed the settler and escaped to join the resistance movement organized by Louis Riel (d. 1885). Riel was later deemed an insurrectionist and executed by the British colonists.

At one point the granddaughter stops and says she can’t go on, the story is too painful. “It’s pretty harrowing stuff,” says Jordan. “I’ve never done a performance like this before. It’s not just the opera, but the feeling I had of being part of the Indigenous cast as one of their community.”

The anthem of the Métis nation is the Red River Jig, a fiddle tune and dance number with Indigenous origins back to the early 19th century. This music figures centrally in the Li Keur opera. Says Jordan, “By playing that music, by being accepted by the that community, I’ve come a bit to know what it means to be Métis.”

—Jon Joseph