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'Was it love at first sight?" Hershey Felder says, repeating the question out loud. He looks at Kim Campbell, who sits close beside him on a sofa at the Unity Centre in Hamilton.

She grimaces; shakes her head.

"Well, for me it was," says Felder.

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"Nooo," admonishes Campbell.

"Absolutely," says Felder. "Of course." Campbell doesn't appear to agree. "No?" says Felder, nudging her. "Come on," he teases her. He throws her his big, sad puppy dog eyes.

"Anyway," she says pointedly, trying to change the subject.

But Felder won't let her off the hook. "Come on," he cajoles.

She smiles sweetly back at him. "Well, I'll tell you," she says, putting her hand on his knee. "The first night I met Hershey, I thought, 'This is a really significant meeting and I don't know why.' I was even going to write it down on a piece of paper and stick it in a drawer."

"You told me that much later," Felder says, smiling. "And she remembers what I wore," he adds proudly. "And what did you say? I wasn't rude but you said I was . . ."

"That you were chutzpahdik," Campbell says.

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"Lovely," Felder says, explaining the Yiddish term.

"Nervy," Campbell says concurrently.

"Did you say nerdy?" Felder says, horrified. "That's not chutzpahdik!"

"Nervy. I said nervy," Campbell insists. "You are the anti-nerd, Hershey."

That fateful evening was in January, 1997, in Los Angeles at the Canadian consulate. Kim Campbell, Canada's first female prime minister who enjoyed a brief 133 days in office before suffering the worst electoral defeat in Canadian history in 1993, was consul general. Felder, a certified Steinway concert pianist who was born in Montreal, was living in Los Angeles at the time, performing regular concerts and teaching. He had made contact with the Canadian consulate in L.A. because he needed his passport renewed. A member of Campbell's staff saw one of his private performances, featuring segments of his opera-in-the-making, Noah's Ark, and suggested he come to the consulate to entertain one evening and to meet the consul general.

The concert in the consulate was successful, he says, and "then we became friends because she had lemon squares in her freezer. And we're both lemon-square freaks."

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Felder, who at 33 is more than 20 years Campbell's junior (she is 54), loves to be flippant. "She wishes I had two birthdays a year," he quips when discussing their age difference. He is exuberant and spontaneous, completely unguarded, which Campbell clearly delights in.

A composer who studied acting and piano as a child in Montreal and later in New York, Felder is highly trained and professionally respected, but you'd never know it. He speaks quickly and boyishly, and spends most of the interview joking with Campbell. Only occasionally does she ask him to stop interrupting her so she can complete a thought. They are openly affectionate. When she walked in from a Boston flight, they hugged and kissed, calling each other "honey" and "dear." Wearing a chic black pant suit, Campbell fussed a bit about her nimbus cloud of bleached-white hair. "Looks like a Brillo pad I bet," she sighed. Felder assured her that she looked fine.

Felder has been working in musical theatre since he was 11. On Sunday last week, he completed a 12-week run on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre of his much-acclaimed one-man show, Gershwin Alone, in which he performs (impersonating Gershwin) some of the composer's songs and offers biographical information. When it opened at the Tiffany Theatre on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles a year and a half earlier, it was the venue's biggest-ever money maker. He has decided not to mount more productions of Gershwin Alone, despite offers to bring it to other theatres, because "I am not Gershwin, and I don't want to be known as the man who wanted to be Gershwin."

The couple, who refer to each other as husband and wife because they are common-law spouses, are in the process of moving to Boston, where Campbell teaches at Harvard University and chairs the Council of Women World Leaders. When her posting as Canadian consul general in Los Angeles came to an end last year, she turned down several (unspecified) offers and decided to work around Felder's career because "he worked around my career in L.A. and now it was his turn," she explains.

"Now that we have the time, we're working through Noah's Ark more intensely," Campbell explains. She is the lyricist. This week, at the invitation of Boris Brott, artistic director of the Hamilton-based National Academy Orchestra, Felder and Campbell are presenting a 30-minute segment of Noah's Ark.

It was during conversations about Felder's ideas for Noah's Ark that the two fell in love. In the mid-nineties, he had returned from Poland where he was helping director Steven Spielberg with the Shoah Foundation project of interviewing Holocaust survivors to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. "I wanted to do a musical about the Holocaust, but how do you do that? So I was looking for an allegory to tell of the experience," Felder explains.

His idea was to use the Biblical story of Noah as a way to discuss issues of survival. They talked over coffee in the kitchen at the consulate, Campbell says. One night, she went upstairs to retrieve her copy of the Bible, "the one that was used to swear me in as Prime Minister," she says. "Oh yes," Felder coos. "I thought that was very significant, very magical." The story of Noah is very short in the Bible, Campbell explains, "so I said to Hershey, 'How do you think the wives feel?' The only reason they get saved is because they're married to Noah's sons. But is it possible that their families are so wicked that they didn't deserve to be saved but the women did? And the animals! What about the animals? Man has dominion over the animals so why should the animals be destroyed because men were wicked? Where is the justice in that? And that's what got us started on working together."

They then looked at works of Jewish mysticism that often fleshed out stories from the Bible. There was one story, Campbell explains, in which Noah comes off the ark and looks around at the devastation and addresses God, asking how He could have done such a horrible thing. "God then says, 'Ah, now you speak up,' " Campbell continues. "I said to Hershey, 'That's the moral core of the play.' Here's Noah so busy following orders, doing what God wants him to do that he never stops to ask, 'Don't you think you're overreacting?' The way to put it is that when you know you have a seat on the ark, what's your responsibility to question the flood? And it's really a very profound and moral question. So often we're comfortable with the rules of society because they're okay for us and we don't stop and think that maybe they're not all right for other people."

Campbell is intense as she talks, articulate and emphatic. She could be just as easily explaining the national deficit. "Kim has a wonderful mind for distilling information to its clearest form of what it actually means," Felder says.

Talking about their operatic production, they complete each other's thoughts and sentences. Even though Noah's Ark was performed in L.A. in 1997 (to positive response), they have been tinkering with it ever since. The project is obviously an intellectual, philosophical and musical challenge for both. Felder talks about Campbell's idea for Noah's epiphany in the second act. "That was the ravioli idea," Campbell says, referring to what they were eating at the time they were discussing it. "Not frozen lemon squares?" Felder asks. "No. Lemon squares are for writing comedy," Campbell deadpans. There is comedy in Noah's Ark, they insist. The animals are hilarious, they say.

Campbell never felt intimidated by the prospect of writing lyrics and working through structural and musical ideas, she says. "I've been writing poetry since I was very young," she says. At the University of British Columbia, she wrote, directed and choreographed the law school's musicals.

"Kim Campbell lyric, first draft, straight from her computer," Felder announces before launching into a recitation: "Water pours down from above/ And boils from below/ The wicked throw their babies down/ To try to stop the flow." This description of the flood is "brilliant," he says, because it captures the sense of terror.

There are similarities between the world of public policy and art, Campbell says. "In public life, the challenge is to take the issues that a society faces and try to communicate them in a way that people can relate to and understand. Artistic expression is very much the same -- to look into the heart of something and to find a way of expressing it."

Does she feel she is unfairly criticized in Canada, that her relationship with Felder, who has been called her "boy toy" in the satirical press, comes under snide scrutiny? "Less than I expected," she says gamely. "Look. I know who I am. I've never been afraid of being criticized." As for her musical ambitions, she doesn't pretend to be a professional. "I'm an amateur musician, like a lot of people. Music just happens to be one of my hobbies." Does she feel she is misunderstood by Canadians? "People want you to be a narrow person," she says. "I had a life before politics, and I have a life after politics."

In fact, she feels that her experience as a politician, which she misses only because of the "crisp decisions" it required her to make, was good for steeling herself and Felder in their artistic pursuits. "In politics, people take pot shots at you. It's the same as an artist. You put yourself out there. You do it because you feel you have to. It's what you believe in."

And she's making no excuses for their love affair. Campbell is refreshingly forthright, which, come to think of it, may have been her problem as a politician. She always said what was on her mind. "I've never been concerned about what other people think. I would never have done the things I've done if I were." Their age difference gave her pause, she concedes. Was she worried it was a late middle-aged madness? Campbell has been married twice before, to brainy UBC math professor Nathan Divinsky, and to lawyer Howard Eddy. (Felder was also married previously, for two years in his early 20s.) "That is what you're concerned about," she acknowledges. But she is not aware of their age difference when they're together. Once they "became a couple," they immediately told people. "I can't live a secret life, and besides, if I can't tell people that I'm in this relationship, then I would have to question why I'm in it."

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the noted sex expert who is also a friend of the couple, recently told her, "I want one just like Hershey," Campbell says, laughing.

So is she somewhat maternal toward him? She waves her hand impatiently.

"Oh no. Both my other husbands were the ones looking for mother figures," she shoots back acidly. Kim Campbell and Hershey Felder will present a segment of Noah's Ark on Monday at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, and on Tuesday at Hamilton's DuMaurier Centre.

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