The writer of Rob Ford: The Opera—which is a real thing—tells us what he was thinking when he came up with the idea.
One could argue that Rob Ford’s year as mayor has had moments so dramatic that they could be described as operatic, but until now nobody has actually tried turning Ford’s story into a musical stage production. (There has been a non-musical, which was part of last summer’s Fringe Festival.)
Yeah, that’s right: until now.
On Sunday, January 22, U of T’s Faculty of Music will be putting on a one-day-only public performance of their aptly titled Rob Ford: The Opera. The press release describes it as “a surrealist fantasy based loosely upon the personality of Toronto’s current and much discussed Mayor.” One scene will involve a dream sequence, during which Ford will go to heaven, where he’ll meet an angelic Margaret Atwood.
The score was written by four student composers as part of a writing workshop, and the libretto (that is, the lyrics) was put together by Michael Patrick Albano, resident stage director of the Faculty’s opera division, who also came up with the concept.
Albano spoke to us about the show, and also about why Rob Ford should probably only be portrayed as a tenor—and why the mayor is a little like King Lear. Our edited, condensed interview is below.
Torontoist: You are a stage director at a real opera training program at U of T.
Albano: That’s right.
You’ve staged operas before, and you are 100 per cent serious about this, right?
Oh, yes. I’m serious about everything. Just because you do a comic piece doesn’t mean that you’re not serious about it. In fact, they’re harder, as I found out.
What made you decide to go with a Rob Ford opera this year?
I was earnestly working on doing a modern adaptation of five scenes from Antigone, of Sophocles, because it’s a favourite play of mine, and also because the middle-eastern repercussions are quite, quite interesting if you look at Antigone pretty closely.
As I was actually working on it in Starbucks, on Bloor Street by Avenue Road, everybody in the whole place—not just people in the line, getting coffee, but everybody—was talking about Rob Ford. And I thought, “Maybe I’m missing the boat here.” Here we’re trying to write a contemporary piece. The whole purpose of this workshop is to bring opera into the twenty-first century. And maybe I’m kind of missing the boat.
I assume you spent some time thinking about Rob Ford as a character. Do you have any insights?
Well, he’s quite bigger than life, which is very interesting. And I don’t mean physically bigger at all. That’s not what I mean. I mean, bigger than life the way operatic characters often are. He really seems to have a spotlight following him no matter where he goes. And what’s interesting about that kind of character—the same as whether you’re talking about Rob Ford, or King Lear, or Richard Nixon, or whoever you’re talking about—is the tremendous catalyst abilities that he has. He has very strong effects on other people around him.
So how do you portray that?
I have no interest whatsoever in writing a piece that just from beginning to end trashes him, because that’s not theatrically interesting. There’s no theatricality in that.
I was reading your online bio and I noticed that a lot of the librettos you’ve written previously have been for children’s operas.
Well, four children’s operas, but the major piece that took me about five years to write was the one about Charles Lindbergh.
Charles Lindbergh, another larger than life figure.
Yeah, exactly. There you go.
So were there similarities between that material and this?
Well, in a word, no.
Who did you cast as Rob Ford?
Oh, one of our most talented students. That’s Andrew Haji. And he’s a tenor. And that in itself is kind of fun because the tenor is the operatic voice, isn’t it? It’s the most iconic operatic voice.
I suppose so. I would have pictured Rob Ford as a bass.
Yeah, I know. Because Satan is always portrayed as a bass whenever he appears in an opera. Evil people are always portrayed as a bass.
So already it’s making a non-predictable choice.
Are you going to be sending Rob Ford an invitation?
The Faculty of Music has their own list of people that they invite to things. I’ll invite some people personally, but the whole mechanics of how people get invited, that really isn’t in my purview.
Really? You’re not going to send Rob Ford a note?
Oh, yes—oh, no, I’ve invited him. I’ve sent him a handwritten note. Oh, yes, absolutely.
And what did you write in your note? How did you explain the project?
Oh, that’s between Rob and I. Let’s just say I assured him that it’s all, really, in great fun.
Rob Ford: The Opera‘s one-and-only performance will be on January 22, at 2:30 p.m., in the MacMillan Theatre in U of T’s Edward Johnson Building. Admission will be free.