An ambitious new reimagining of the beloved Handel oratorio, A Messiah/Complex, is hoping to spark conversations about inclusion, equity and diversity for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour.

Powerful choruses, inspiring arias and messages of hope, excitement and shared humanity — Handel’s Messiah has become a fixture of the holiday season.

In a year unlike any other, a new production of the enduring classic presented by Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre (AgT) truly brings the country together in a dramatic cross-Canada reimagining titled: Messiah/Complex.  

Founded in 2010, Against the Grain is known for their outside-the-box productions of classical repertoire in unconventional spaces. Having previously staged choreographed versions of Handel’s Messiah in 2013 and 2015, the plan was to revive the production in 2020 — and then the pandemic hit. 

“We had to adapt like everyone else,” said Against the Grain Artistic Director Joel Ivany. “Instead of going quietly, we really decided to see what was possible.” 

At the same time, the Black Lives Matter protests spurred conversations about social equality and the lack of inclusion, equity and diversity for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC). This had AtG examining their own productions. “We thought, as our company, ‘could we do something that could change the conversation a little bit?’”

The result is a daring new interpretation of Messiah featuring 4 choirs, 6 languages, and 12 soloists, all members of the BIPOC community, who hail from coast-to-coast-to-coast. 

Representing Manitoba, soloist Julie Lumsden is a proud member of the Manitoba Metis Federation, with Scottish and German settler ancestry. After receiving an email from Ivany “out of the blue,” Lumsden knew “this is something that I needed to be a part of.”

Since graduating from the Desautels Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba in 2015, Lumsden has worked primarily in musical theatre and stage, including two seasons at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival. 

Performing He shall feed His flock, the Part I aria made for a return to a familiar place for the classically-trained soprano. Filmed in Banff, the majestic setting made for a dramatic backdrop to the piece about comfort and hope. “It was really exciting to be able to film in Banff… in this land that has persevered for longer than I can even fathom,” said Lumsden. 

Streaming online free of charge, though a donation is encouraged, Messiah/Complex creates accessibility for those who may not otherwise have had the opportunity or the comfort to explore the repertoire. “You’re going to see people that you never thought you would see sing this; you’re going to hear it in languages you could have never imagined hearing Messiah in; and you’re going to be transported across our nation,” said Lumsden. “I’m just so excited.”

For Ivany, this is a celebration of the interconnectedness of the artists representing an array of cultural traditions and heritages. “For them to bring who they are into the project, so that you’re not just seeing the music done in a unique way, but you’re hopefully really seeing who these artists are, what they’re about and who they represent at the same time.”


Written by Simeon Rusnak