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Diyet to perform in cross-Canada chorus

Diyet Van Lieshout, a member of the Kluane First Nation, will perform in her southern Tutchone language in a nation-wide rendition of Handel's Messiah.

By Amy Kenny

When Diyet van Lieshout was asked to participate in a cross-Canada rendition of Handel’s Messiah, the singer hesitated at first.

“It’s Handel, it’s an iconic Christmas, classical piece,” Diyet says of the COVID-friendly concert that will be streamed online by Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre this December. “As an Indigenous person who doesn’t necessarily identify as religious or as Christian, it was kind of weird. But when I thought about it and they sort of explained to me what their vision was, I thought there might be an interesting way to sort of turn this very colonial piece of music on its head a little bit.”

Van Lieshout, a member of the Kluane First Nation, told Against the Grain that she would participate if she could sing her part in her own language—southern Tutchone.

Joel Ivany, founder and artistic director of Against the Grain, loved the idea.

“She brought this unique thing,” says Ivany. “The music is white, western, old, classical and her language is Indigenous, from the land, and from far Canada. So the language and the music are opposing forces that now fit together into something new and, for me, that’s what’s unique.”

Ivany says Against the Grain has performed Messiah in the past, at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre Theatre, but it was with the lavish sort of production scale that is typical of Handel performances.

This year, when COVID hit and it became clear that live performance wasn’t going to be realistic, the theatre started looking at virtual options. Ivany says the production was further inspired by the protests taking place around Black Lives Matter.

“We thought, what if we could find artists who represented the BIPOC community for all the leads, from every province and territory in Canada?” he says.

The result is Messiah/Complex, a performance that will be screened online Dec. 13. In addition to van Lieshout, it features Elliot Madore, Miriam Khalil, Rihab Chaieb, Jully Black and Jonathon Adams. Ivany says different parts of the oratorio will be sung in English, southern Tutchone, Dene, Arabic, French and Inuktitut.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra provides traditional instrumentation for performances that are individually interpreted by each of the singers participating.

Van Lieshout says the experience was technically challenging.

“I haven’t sung classically since I got my degree 20 years ago,” she says, laughing.  

Her piece “O Thou Tellest Good Tidings to Zion” is the part of the oratorio that, in the original King James Bible text, signals and shares news of the birth of Christ. In van Lieshout’s rendition, it’s more specific to celebrating creation.

“I worked with my grandma, who is fluent in southern Tutchone,” she says. “The translation we came up with is about finding creation and the creator in all things, especially this land. The piece became very region-specific and it sort of translates to ‘look at all this incredible land and all of these things on it and people in this land.’ So that’s what the piece became for me and all of a sudden it made more sense and it’s meaningful, to where I’m from and what I believe.”

To register for the performance of Messiah/Complex, which includes accompanying video footage, and for more information about where to find it On Demand until Dec. 26, visit