Although she’s often called the first professional Inuk opera singer in addition to being a writer and composer, Deantha Edmunds hails from a community where classical music has been honed and developed for centuries. Carrying this legacy with her through her work as a performance and recording artist, in this interview Edmunds offers an intimate look into the familial and cultural influences that have shaped her unique career in music.
Emily Henderson: Your contributions to the Canadian and Indigneous music landscapes are remarkable. Can you share what initially drew you to music?
Deantha Edmunds: I grew up on the west coast of Newfoundland, in a beautiful city called Corner Brook. My father was an Inuk from Hopedale, Nunatsiavut, NL, and my mother is a beautiful Irish Newfoundlander.
My parents both loved music of all different styles and genres. My father played guitar, but he could pick up any instrument and figure it out. He was very intelligent and was actually a professional civil engineer who traveled and worked all over the world. He was a very special man and my parents made sure music was a huge part of my childhood.
They encouraged my brother and sister and I to take piano lessons. I don't think they had to encourage much, because we were all really keen on it. But singing was my true love.
It makes me feel like I'm being my most true self. And I especially fell in love with singing in different languages when I began to train in classical music. I had lots of friends who did more pop, folk and musical theater, but I wasn't interested in those styles. I listened to everything and I still do, but for my own artistry I really love classical singing in different languages.
EH: As part of your work in different languages, you’ve sung in Latin and Spanish, among others. Have you explored Inuttitut much?
DE: I sing in Inuttitut, but I am still learning to speak it. My dad taught my siblings and I words and phrases and prayers growing up. He had lost a lot of the language when he left his community at a young age, but he always said we would learn together. After leaving home, it's something we had planned to do someday, but that someday never came. I'm really happy to say that I'm learning it now through different opportunities and that I'm teaching what I can to my nine-year-old daughter, who sings in Inuttitut as well.
EH: That's amazing that it’s getting passed on! What was the draw to singing over playing an instrument like the piano?
DE: Being a singer is so much about your identity because you are living in your instrument, which is very personal and can be very different. But there’s something special about it. We're so self critical in so many ways and we singers need to always practice being kind and forgiving to ourselves. In nurturing ourselves, we are nurturing our instruments and our soul so that we can do what it is that we love. That is something that I meditate on a lot and something I love about singing, which I have been teaching now for decades to my music students.
EH: What does it mean to you to be Canada's first and only Inuk professional classical singer and when did you begin to realize that this was the space you occupy in Canadian music history?
DE: When I was a university student starting my performing career, I started getting recognized as the first Inuk classical singer, which meant the world to me and it still does. I'm humbled and feel very blessed to have that honour. I carry that identity with a lot of respect and care, especially because of the music history of Labrador.
The Moravian missionaries who brought the music of Bach, Handel and Mozart to these small wooden churches in communities like Hopedale, Nain and Okak may have been bringing in a European music tradition, but Inuit really made it into something unique.
Inuit not only learned how to play stringed instruments and organs and brass instruments and sing in full four part harmonies, they made the music their own and altered it ever so slightly over hundreds of years. It's a real source of pride, and is still used in community life. So I am very aware of that legacy and tradition in my own work.
EH: How has that history influenced your own work?
DE: Something I learned some time ago that I know was confirmed by Dr. Tom Gordon from Memorial University was that there were manuscripts found in the churches in some of the communities in Nunatsiavut that had been attributed to German and Moravian composers, but some of them had actually been composed and altered by Inuit! So, that's pretty huge for me. What blows my mind is thinking of all those classical works making their debuts in Inutittut in the tiny churches of places like Hopedale. I feel like this needs to be known in all of music history.
In Nunatsiavut, it's still something we are proud of and blessed to have. It's something very meaningful and significant to me because I became a classical singer without knowing any of these stories until later in my career.
My father did tell us when we were children about church services he attended in Hopedale as a child, and about all the music and the beautiful choirs and the brass band that played on the roof of the church on Easter Sunday. He told us about the wonderful singing that he grew up hearing in the church and in his community. In Labrador, Inuit made the music their own, they adapted it and I find that just remarkable. There is a radio documentary from Angela Antle that ran not long ago on the [Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC)] called Thumbprints in Seal Oil that examines a lot of that history.
EH: As an artist engaging with this history, do you have any stories from stand-out performances you could share?
DE: In 2015 I was able to sing at the Moravian Church in Hopedale where my father grew up. It’s this really humble, beautiful white wooden church. A lot of people from the community were there and Dr. Gordon played the organ and I sang along with the late tenor and tradition-bearer Karrie Obed.
One of the selections on our program that night was from Handel’s Messiah, an aria called “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” which is a famous soprano aria. However, I sang it from one of the handwritten manuscripts that Dr. Gordon found during his research into the Moravian missionaries in Labrador.
I got to sing one of my favorite arias in the community where my father is from in the church he grew up in. It was so powerful, I felt like I was vibrating on another level. It felt like I was home. I love performing and the adrenaline high you get when you're really rocking your part, but this felt more grounded, and yet still exhilarating. I had never felt that before.
EH: You've performed with a lot of other Indigenous performers and Indigenous companies and you appeared in Tapestry Opera’s staging of Shanawdithit in 2019. What was it like to be involved in an Indigenous opera, one that told the story of Shanawdithit, thought to be the last surviving member of the Beothuk people?
DE: That was an incredible project. Being Indigenous from Newfoundland and Labrador and learning about Shanawdithit from an early age was a challenge. I always wondered what her story was. When this opportunity to be a part of the opera came to me, I just jumped for it. I think it was life changing in some ways. It's been a privilege to work with so many different Indigenous people and organizations to be able to tell different Indigenous stories.
EH: Speaking of storytelling, what’s the story behind your recent solo EP?
DE: That was released last spring, so over just over a year ago. The title of that EP is My Beautiful Home and there are three songs from Labrador. Even though I didn't grow up in Labrador, it really is a home to me, especially from a musical sense. It's the most beautiful place, and I can't wait to go back. The last time I was there was at the end of February, doing some work with the Pan Labrador Youth Choir who I'm going to be performing with at the Stratford Music Festival in 2021.
The three songs that are on My Beautiful Home are classical arrangements of well-known folk songs in Labrador. One is by a really well-known and loved songwriter and musician named Harry Martin, and it's called “This is My Home”. There is also a German lullaby translated into Inuttitut called “Nutarâsuk”, which was found amongst the manuscripts in the Moravian churches in coastal Labrador. The final song is actually the anthem of Nunatsiavut, called “Sons of Labrador/Labradormiut” by the late Sid Dicker. I think this project is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done. I’m very proud to have it in my repertoire.
EH: This might be challenging to answer during the era of COVID-19, but what’s coming next for you?
DE: It's tough. I know that everybody is going through the same thing, all the artists and performers and musicians that I know moving through this time in our own way. I had a full year of performances set up from Vancouver to Halifax and even New Zealand! Unfortunately, most of them have been postponed for now. Honestly, this time has given me a chance to dream up new ideas and to fill out ideas that have been stewing for a while. I have been very grateful for the opportunity to plan more for the future and I am pleased to announce that I am beginning to write the first Inutittut opera, which will be titled Ingutak.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.