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Mulroney - a life that screams for opera treatment

Mulroney as political epic? Maybe. Mulroney as scandal? Certainly. Mulroney as history? Perhaps for prodigious scholars. But Mulroney as opera? Yes! Yes! Yes! What other art form allows one to mix overwhelming ambition, hyperbole, pathos, satire and politics with clever writing, skilled acting, great voices and compelling music? Mulroney: The Opera has all of these.

And it says much for the opera art form, and Rhombus Media's execution of it, that this hard-nosed political reporter came away from the screening feeling warmly nostalgic – even sympathetic – to Brian and Mila. But Brian and Mila, if they choose to watch it, will not come away from Mulroney: The Opera feeling warmly nostalgic because, as the subtitle of the film notes, "Politics is cruel" – and so is satire.

Mulroney the braggart is there ("I was the big brassy guy, who won and won big"), as well as the bitterness at being underappreciated ("What does Canada want of me? What can I do? I just can't see"). To work as opera and as satire, the hero/villain has to be larger than life, and our Brian certainly is as he strides the corridors of Parliament taking credit for much, and blame for nothing.

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The opera is a series of caricatures, not a comprehensive story, beginning with Mulroney as a 10-year-old boy singing for Chicago Tribune publisher Colonel Robert McCormick, who owned the mill in Baie-Comeau, Que. It continues through Brian the young, charming lawyer on the make, both in politics and at the country club. And then to the triumphs and tragedies as prime minister. It ends with the ignominy of the Karlheinz Schreiber's brown envelope.

The opera's libretto has a tone of gritty verisimilitude because most of it was taken from debate transcripts or the salty assessments Mulroney made into author Peter C. Newman's tape recorder. But a lot of the credit for the feeling of veracity has to go to comedian Rick Miller, who not only mastered the Mulroney gestures and style, but actually looked like Mulroney after three hours in the makeup room.

The film is a successful repeat collaboration between director Larry Weinstein, librettist Dan Redican and composer Alexina Louie (who had worked together before in a short comedy opera Toothpaste and Burnt Toast, a series of eight comic mini-operas).

It works because Mulroney achieves a triumph/tragedy quality blending the fruits of power with its perils in satire that is frequently funny and sometimes cruel. The writers had lots of real-life material to work from, although they often stretch the reality for effect. There is a gesture toward balance by having Redican appear as an onstage commentator. The result is often unflattering, but within the bounds of artistic licence.

You couldn't do Mila (Stephanie Anne Mills) without a send-up on shoes, along with the country club and hair. It's the filmmakers' stab at the Mulroneys' perceived nouveau riche pretensions, but the real-life Mila has more substance and empathy than her screen portrayal.

There are cameos of several Mulroney cabinet minsters' brushes with scandal – Suzanne Blais-Grenier's first-class travel, Michel Gravel's sticky fingers and a more extensive nod at Bob Coates, caught out in a German strip club. Why so much attention to Bob? Opera thrives on sex, and Bob's escapade was the only Mulroney-era scandal with libidinal heat.

In opera as in life, prime ministers need enemies, and for Mulroney his ultimate nemesis was Pierre Trudeau, especially when it came to Mulroney's ill-fated Meech Lake Accord – a contretemps that Louie brilliantly captures in a table-top tango between the pair set to Bizet's habanera from Carmen. It's a bit of a musical prank: You cross a tenor and a baritone and come up with a mezzo.

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It is opera after all, so come for the entertainment, not the history.

Hugh Winsor was The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau chief and then a national political columnist during the Mulroney years in Ottawa.

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