The operatic repertoire is home to plenty of larger-than-life political figures, from Julius Caesar to Richard Nixon. Even Attila the Hun has his own opera.
So is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford appropriate material for operatic treatment? He’s certainly larger than life in one sense (although he says he’s started a diet). But, at this time, Ford’s place in history is far from assured.
Nevertheless, Michael Albano, who runs the University of Toronto’s Opera Division, decided that now was the time for Rob Ford, the Opera. He penned a one-act libretto, and asked a clutch of grad-student composers at the Faculty of Music to write the music.
The four composers – Massimo Guida, Adam Scime, Anna Hostman and Saman Shahi – came up with a surprisingly coherent work, mostly in a modernist style that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood film noir.
In the spirit of lavish public-sector spending, Albano staged the opera free of charge, for one performance only, on Sunday afternoon at the U of T’s Macmillan Theatre. The result was a capacity audience – made up of people who evidently harbour no great love for Toronto’s rightwing mayor and his policies.
Although Ford didn’t appear to be in the audience, he was strikingly present on stage. Andrew Haji, a talented tenor currently studying at the Faculty of Music, was the spitting image of His Royal Fordness.
The story of begins strangely and gets stranger. The audience is introduced to Ford’s parents – an unlikely pair of hippies from the 1960s (sung by Fabian Arciniegas and Eliza Johnson). Optimistically, they declare their newborn son a “child of liberation,” who will grow up to “rouse the sprits of the poor.”
We fast-forward to the present, where Ford is installed in City Hall. There, with the help of a trio of oppressed secretaries, he busies himself cutting budgets for public transit, garbage collection, the fire department and the zoo.
When the hard-working mayor falls asleep at his desk, an angel appears: a winged Margaret Atwood (sung by Rosanna Murphy). Like a Dickensian apparition from A Christmas Carol, she spirits him away to face his own crimes. All of this is quite confusing to Ford, who doesn’t even know who Atwood or Dickens are.
In the final scene, Ford finds himself in a courtroom “on an astral plane,” where he is to be judged by a jury of Toronto librarians. Witnesses are called up – a homeless woman, an injured cyclist and an unhappy seagull – and the court turns against the hapless mayor.
And then, seizing Atwood’s wings, Ford vanishes, never to be seen again.
The only explanation given is that, like Icarus, he has flown too close to the sun. And a Brechtian moral is provided by Ford’s sadder-but-wiser parents: “A thief is a thief until he’s caught.”
Albano’s absurdist mélange made for lively fare, and held together well. And the performance was energized by everyone involved: stage director Erik Thor, conductor Rafael Luz, and the young cast.
Yet at times the material seemed a little thin. Ford has only been in office for a little more than a year, and he’s got a few years to go. Maybe by then Toronto’s mayor will have provided Albano with inspiration for a second act to his opera.
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