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Cindy Rivers is a woman with a mission. The feisty Edmonton stand-up comedian and actor with an earthy sense of humor is passionate about helping society understand and accept trans people.
However, when she started her own journey to gender reassignment surgery in Fort McMurray six years ago, little could she know she’d eventually be a major character in an adventurous and compelling new hybrid of film and opera.
BOUND is the latest creation of Toronto’s Against the Grain (AtG) Theatre, co-directed and with a libretto by Joel Ivany, who recently moved to Edmonton to become the artistic director of Edmonton Opera.
The new work has had a long gestation — it’s been seen in Toronto in two previous stage iterations before ending up in its definitive form as an opera film. It’s now streaming online, free, until April 24.
It presents four pathfinding Canadians telling their stories. They remind us that underneath Canada’s traditions of acceptance and diversity, there are those whose sense of identity is questioned and denigrated.
Dr. Zulfikar Hirji immigrated to Canada from Uganda in the 1970s as a political refugee, only to experience racism and bullying in his new homeland. He’s now an associate professor in the anthropology department at York University.
Dr. Nadiya Vasdani was born in Toronto and studied medicine in the Caribbean. She found her identity de ella as a medical professional discounted in Canada when she experienced the picketing of hospitals during the COVID-19 crisis.
Rania Younes learned her Dubai university qualifications in marketing and psychology and her experience in advertising would not help much in her new country, in spite of her work with multinational companies. As she says in BOUND, “Arab women, in particular, have a very high unemployment rate.”
And then there is Rivers, who experienced first-hand intolerance of being transgendered.
“A lot of trans people are quiet and they don’t want people to know about their lives and that’s cool,” she points out. “That’s their prerogative. Not me. I don’t have any secrets.”
Their stories are pulled together in a fast-paced documentary, with the four interviews interspersed with visuals that range widely from news clips to Canadian location shots. The common theme through the film is the sense of their identity being questioned, and that they were made to feel different.
As it unfolds, this documentary’s other framework is slowly revealed: operatic music. There are four performers, each one representing one of the four storytellers. The music they sing is based on Handel arias with the words changed, brought into a 21st-century context with arrangements by Toronto composer Kevin Lau, who also created the evocative non-vocal music for the film.
River’s operatic alter-ego is American soprano Breanna Sinclairé, herself a trans woman, one of the very few in the North American operatic scene — indeed, this must be the first time a trans woman has sung the role of a trans person in opera, and a welcome development it is.
“It was very affirming,” Sinclairé says. “This has been a fantastic project for me. I really felt like I was taken seriously as a classical artist. It was really nice to work with other classical artists that I can see eye to eye with, and be welcomed just as an artist period, before even getting to tell the story.”
Rivers herself was new to opera and found it a very different and more complicated artistic world.
“There’s a lot more moving parts so I had a hard time grasping, even trying to explain it to people. They asked me, ‘What did you do?’ I said I was in an opera. Well, no, I’m in a documentary with opera. And they’re like, ‘Wait, what do you mean?’ ”
It’s the operatic side to this film that gives it extra power. The alter-ego singers seem to represent the souls of the storytellers, and what they sing are not the stories those four have recounted, but the feelings that lie beneath them, the desire for identity, the determination that we should all be recognized and honored for who we are, as human beings.
If the interviews and conversations in this documentary hybrid are the four storytellers as physical beings, then the music and the singing are their spirits — and their spirituality.
It is a powerful and ground-breaking combination, a must-see not only for what it says about Canadians but also for its sheer artistic verve and musical power.
It is at times hard-hitting — Rivers herself hopes “it’s just as hard for other people to sit through as it was for me.”
Everyone now has the chance to experience it: BOUND is available to stream on the Against the Grain website until April 24, free if you register.
Edmontonians can next see Rivers live at the Comic Strip, in the Funniest Person with a Day Job competition, which runs from May 3-24.
BOUND: Handel With Care
Organization: Against the Grain Theater
Composer: kevin lau
Librettist: joel ivany
Directors: Renata Arluk and Joel Ivany
Storytellers: Zulfikar Hirji, Cindy Rivers, Nadiya Vasdani and Rania Younes
Singers: Andrew Haji, Miriam Khalil, Breanna Sinclairé and Justin Welsh
streaming: Free at atgtheatre.com until April 24