Detailing the real life stories of a diverse group of courageous Canadians — a university professor from Uganda, a Muslim community worker from Dubai, an American-trained pandemic physician, a transgender stand-up comedian — Against the Grain Theatre’s latest digital venture, Bound: A Hybrid Opera-Film, explores four stormy journeys to the centre of contemporary society only to find tolerance and respect in disturbingly short supply. Set to music by George Frideric Handel strikingly renovated by Kevin Lau, sung by four demonstrably empathetic soloists, AtG’s ferociously passionate new undertaking both stirs and startles, urgent in execution, unique in ambition.
Opera Going Toronto reached out to Edmonton-based creator/director/librettist, Joel Ivany, for an intense, free-wheeling discussion of the film, its deep-reaching roots and expectation-defying realization.
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My first question needs a bit of a set-up. Apologies, Joel, for being long-winded. In 2017 Bound premiered and you introduced us to seven characters who were modelled, for the most part, on real-life figures drawn from news stories at the time. All were enemies of a kind of unspecified, hyper-authoritarian State embodied by a menacing voice off stage. So we had a medical student trained in Canada who was accused of fraud after caring for patients in Sri Lanka. We had a politically minded civic activist. We had a transgender target of institutionalized bigotry. An immigrant from the U.S. recently converted to Islam. A pair of innocent victims, both of whom were caught up in a kind of hysterical, State-sponsored sweep in the name of anti-terrorism. And a Muslim journalist who was condemned for wearing a hijab. Then, in 2018, we had Bound v.2 which was essentially an updated concert version of the show. The cast list was reduced to four. We kept the medical graduate. We kept the transgender target. Still had the religious convert. Still had the Muslim journalist. The story arc, despite being compressed, remained essentially unaltered. Then came 2020 and the show COVID cancelled. In any event, all of that on-stage narrative seems to have been largely replaced in Bound: The Film by documentary-style exposition in the form of edited interviews with actual victims of intolerance. None of the original characters, including that of The State, has survived. Why the big changes?
Great question. So this whole project kind of grew around Ayre at The Ismaili Centre when Donald Trump was first elected. It then became — “Can we do something with music and art and politics?” And that was sort of the birth of the first version. The completed stage premiere in 2020 would have made the voice of The State even more oppressive. In fact there was a whole series of dialogues between the musical numbers which had never been heard before. And then the reality of the pandemic started to play out. It really shook things — a lot of bad news repeatedly and repeatedly — and that sort of found its way into conversations we were having about equity, diversity, inclusion and the role opera companies can play to help shine a light on all of that. You know, we’re constantly learning— I’m constantly learning — as humans. As people trying to adapt. As we started envisioning how we could do something with this piece, we had an opportunity, due to the success of Messiah, to do some film projects. That’s how Sāvitri came about. And that’s how Bound became a possibility. We didn’t want to film a stage show. In talking with Crow’s Theatre, where we did a residency, we just said, “What if we profiled real people?” Some of the people we approached were already involved like Rania (Rania Younes) who was with us throughout the whole process of Bound. She was there in 2017 letting us ask, “Why do you wear a hijab?” And Zulfikar (Dr. Zulfikar Hirji, York University) was another. He was there in 2018 when we did the concert Bound. Part of me is still curious what that version could have been. But celebrating a group of real people not at all connected to classical music — that was something really interesting. How Bound could amplify their stories even if it wasn’t originally written with their stories in mind.
I don’t want to belabour the issue of The State but I’m still not clear why you dropped the paradigm. The notion basically provided us with a good deal of the dramatic impetus in Bound 1 and 2. It really drove everything because obviously your original characters had not only been persecuted by this faceless totalitarian force but physically incarcerated, as well. It was very intense.
The 2020 version, that no one got to see per se, was darker and more hopeless. It just felt so heavy. At the time, we needed hope. It was just kind of the timing. The way things were. What was going on in the world. That’s what’s so hard when you try to go back in time. It just felt like the show didn’t need to be as dark as it could have been. The fact that Rania and Zulfikar’s dreams, in a lot ways, were crushed — that broke my heart. They were both very difficult to hear because there wasn’t a lot of hope. Their hope was kind of in the next generation. We celebrate immigration. We celebrate being different. But it’s not equal. All those questions were rattling through our heads when we were trying to put something new together.
That raises another question about the singers and their roles. We were presented originally with singers in Bound as storytellers, all of whom were essentially singing their stories as characters. Here it feels more like singers as illuminators of narrative that has already been conveyed, documentary style, in preceding scenes. What’s your sense of that? The singers’ presence taking on a different kind of purpose.
We shifted, exactly, who those storytellers were just because the film version was morphing into almost an oratorio where it was less about the story of who the singers were and more about who these real people were. It’s more about connecting to that. Because the singers are nameless, so to speak, their voices are carrying more emotional weight. This is obviously very different from what went before. Now it’s more in general about how we are, how do we interact with other Canadians, other immigrants. When Andrew (Andrew Haji, tenor) sings, We are different but the same. That’s the thing.
There is a kind of recurring theme that runs through Bound of human kindness as a sort of transformative force.
Yes. We couldn’t get all four of our storytellers togethers for a shot. I feel badly we don’t have that image. There is a shot of the four singers all just holding hands.
So vivid. The balance between arias da capo, as Kevin interprets the aria da capo form, and the stylized Handelian ensembles is interesting. I have an old song list from 2017 that Against the Grain sent me way back when. When I compared it to the song list in the film, apart from some new material that emerged in 2018, it hasn’t really changed that much. And yet, the ensemble form here feels more resonant. Maybe that’s a result of your very intensely dramatic staging where we’re outdoors a good deal of the time. Maybe that’s one of the things that gives the music added potency. Whatever it is, the sense of collective music-making is very strong in the film. Very powerful.
For the 2020 unproduced version we actually re-arranged a lot of the music based on the drama. But for this version, we went back to what it was in 2018. AtG productions are typically known for their intimacy and closeness. This film gave us an oppourtunity to look at the material differently where it was outside and open and breathing. The shot where Breanna (Breanna Sinclairé, soprano) is just walking down the street, so majestic and tall — you just feel the roominess. The music — what Kevin did and the fact that we were able to get the TSO to record it is so special. Seeing the four singers together and hearing them together was just amazing. That they were able to record their voices together made everything better.
While we’re still on the subject of music — We began Bound with a solo piano. Then we were introduced to Bound v.2 with a small chamber ensemble. And now we’re hearing a pretty formidable-sized symphony orchestra. The musical horizons here have hugely expanded. Why did you set aside that initial intimacy in favour of this big sound?
I think the challenge over the years with Against the Grain Theatre is that we’ve put a lot of emphasis on the theatre side and a lot of time that’s worked. The piano and string quartets in the Mozart for example. It just felt that if we were going to do Bound and record it then we wanted Kevin’s music to sound as good as it could be. The TSO was so supportive of the message we wanted to deliver, as well. That was important. I just felt we wanted to give the singers the sort of musical accompaniment that at times in the past we haven’t been able to give.
Another observation. It has to do with spirituality. In Bound: The Film it somehow feels much deeper than in earlier versions. He is the Truth. The circle goes on. The performances somehow feel more spiritually impassioned than ever before.
I think at times we can get so off track. We think we’re doing the right thing. Often we just kind of need to step back and find out what is our truth and what keeps us calm and keeps us focused.
One last question. I detect more than a slight hint of Messiah/Complex here influencing format and production design. A strong historic and historical through line musically speaking — Handel — even given Kevin’s remarkable updates. And then we have this incredibly compelling immediacy of setting and visual style. I’m sure you didn’t set out to create Messiah II but I do have the sense that you, like so many of the rest of us, aren’t quite ready to step away from the experience.
For both me and Reneltta (Reneltta Arluk, co-director) who worked on both projects, it was a reference point. Again, at one of the darkest moments in the past two years, it brought such unexpected joy. The balm we needed artistically to get through that time. It was so powerful. I know it will always impact the work I do.
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Bound: A Hybrid Opera-Film streams until April 24. Free registration at atgtheatre.com