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Alone, but not unheard

Maria Olivia Ramirez Rabiela had been planning to return to her native Mexico when she died alone in her apartment in late 2007. Olivia: a Folk Opera – the latest, and possibly the last, production by Montreal’s Coal Choir – tells her story. Through a series of richly orchestrated pieces, the instrumental ensemble narrates the last days of Rabiela’s life, delving into the alienation and isolation she faced after being separated from her family for 30 years.

The Coal Choir has been filling spaces from record stores to churches with their sound since 2006, and raising money for organizations like the Mile End Mission, the Barriere Lake Algonquin Community, and Santropol Roulant as they go.

Performances of Olivia will take place at St. James United Church this Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. The score and script were composed by Coal Choir founder Katherine Peacock, who was a friend of Rabiela’s. She was inspired by an envelope of documents left with her for safekeeping when Rabiela was planning to leave Canada.

“With Olivia’s documents,” she writes, “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 and the circumstances of her death, finding places to wrench them open with song.”

Proceeds from this performance will go to the St. James’ Mission and the Immigrant Workers Centre, groups whose efforts directly respond to struggles like Rabiela’s.

The group is known for its remarkable sense of community, and, as this performance will mark “the final production of the Montreal Coal Choir in its current incarnation,” it promises to be a charged experience.

Rehearsal recordings suggest Olivia will be powerful, even harrowing, but shot through with life’s vibrancy even in its most mournful passages.

Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door. Advance tickets are available at Phonopolis, Drawn & Quarterly, Cheap Thrills, Bikurious, Co-op La Maison Verte, and online at For more information, see