Maria Olivia Ramirez Rabiela was a poor, sick, sixty-five year old Mexican woman living for many years in a small apartment in Montreal. Her ill health forced her to quit working as a Nanny in Westmount and she had problems breathing dust.
Having spent the past 30 years in Montreal without family contact, she was trying to return to her native Mexico and her friend Katherine Peacock helped her clear out some of her apartment in the summer of 2007. She had stored all her documents, her leaf collection and many other things in pizza boxes, many of which had been marked “Olivia.”
On December 1st, 2007, she died alone in her apartment and was found by her landlord five weeks later. She had entrusted an envelope of documents to Peacock who writes and performs under the name of Mussaver. These inspired her to compose the music and script for Olivia: A Folk Opera.
The drama explores themes of alienation, isolation, & community through the final hours of Olivia’s life. It featured twenty-five musician-artists, playing accordions, strings, percussion, and various found objects and singing full choral arrangements.
“With Olivia’s documents,” Mussaver says in the show’s program “I felt it was necessary to trace a line through them with music, so that people could hear the undercurrents of their politics. To try and follow the borders that marked her life & the circumstances of her death, finding places to wrench them open with song.”
The Coal Choir
We sat in the auditorium of a church with very good acoustics and a balcony section. I sat par-terre. The play began with a song as the whole cast, all members of the Coal Choir, walked in singing, some with instruments as well. The Coal Choir is an ensemble founded by Mussaver in 2006. Unfortunately, this show will be the last hurrah for them in their current incarnation.
They were all dressed in black and barefoot. They came in circling the audience, ending up in front of the stage. Near the end of the opening song, one of the members (Sarah Tracy) put on a white sweater to play the role of Olivia.
There were poems, songs, assorted wonders in Olivia’s life, including regular communication with the others, who would only sometimes respond, usually in verse, with twenty-five part harmony. The sets were brilliantly crafted from discarded objects gleaned from and found in the alleys and streets of various neighbourhoods throughout Montreal.
The show was sold out on all three nights of it’s short run. Olivia was held in Dawson Hall at St. James United Church in downtown Montreal, and the proceeds will be divided between The Montreal City Mission, and the Immigrant workers’ centre. It ran November 25th, 26th, and 28th.
Written, Composed and Directed by Mussaver
Choreography by Claire Lyke
Stage Management by Chu-Lynne Ng
Production Design by Arwen Fleming, Jeremiah Riehl and Sarah Tracy
Sound Engineering by Tyler Crawford
Web Design by Cody Django Redmond and David Seitz