This past weekend Rob Ford inadvertently created the hottest ticket of the year so far with Rob Ford: The Opera.
Rob Ford is very likely aware of the art form that is opera. That is, he’s likely aware of its existence and perhaps has even seen one performed. But he probably doesn’t know too much about the art form, and definitely hasn’t studied it extensively. Over this past weekend though, he was responsible for arguably Toronto’s most buzzworthy operatic performance in recent memory.
We hadn’t been to the MacMillan Theatre before, the performance space of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music—and as Dean Don McLean suggested to the packed house in his opening address (with a sly, raised eyebrow), many others in the audience might not have been, either. Attendance at the one-time, free event was overwhelming—student volunteers did their best to manage the crowds, and even opened up the rarely-used balcony, yet tempers still flared when not everyone could be accommodated. The atmosphere inside the theatre was humming, excited, and astonished at the turnout, none more so than among the faculty’s staff. It’s apparently not something that happens very often.
It seems like the only person not in attendance was Ford himself, though he was invited.
Political criticism is a longtime tradition in opera, McLean explained, ranging from Giuseppe Gazzaniga’s Don Giovanni in the late 1700s to John Adams’s Nixon in China in the 1980s. In that vein, the opera division’s resident stage director, Michael Patrick Albano, conceptualized and wrote the libretto, “loosely based upon the personality of Toronto’s current and much discussed Mayor.” Directed by Erik Thor, conducted by Raphael Luz, and composed in four parts by four different music students—Massimo Guida, Adam Scime, Anna Höstman, and Saman Shahi—Rob Ford, the Opera attempted to take art form into the realm of The Theatre of the Absurd, with a story reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
In this on-stage reality, Rob Ford’s parents (Eliza Johnson and Fabian Arciniegas) are reading Karl Marx and tie-dyeing shirts just before he’s born, and have dreams of their child one day lifting up the spirits of the poor (though his parents are really the owners of a printing company). But as toddler Rob Ford (Andrew Haji) emerges from the crib, in a fog of dry ice and already dressed in a suit, he soon laments that as he grows older the universe is less willing to let him have his way, singing “I’ve always wanted to hold the universe captive,” “Just me and the circling stars.”
He also has a struggle with, and loses to, his first tricycle.
As Mayor Ford sits at his desk alone, complaining about how his own mother won’t even accept his dinner invitations (though in reality, she hosts them for him), and watches as his Councillors literally cut services like “Garbage,” “Arts,” and “Gravy” as they moan, dressed in tattered suits and chains. Tired from a stressful work day, he is then visited by Margaret Atwood (Rosanna Murphy) in a dream, who may or may not be God, and is put on trial by a jury of bespectacled, knitting, angry librarians. Three witnesses testify to Ford’s grievances: a homeless woman who lost her job when he outlawed dissent, an injured bike courier who had his vehicle privatized, and a sad seagull who fears the loss of its beloved waterfront (though we all know how that ended). The ending really slips into absurdism, with Ford stealing Atwood’s wings and “disappearing” by flying too close to the sun. Of course, this causes him to suffer the ultimate comeuppance.
It’s unforgiving, completely exaggerated, and shallow in addressing the confusing web of questionable municipal decisions Ford’s made in just over a year in office. But the music was clever and funny, and the performances were charged, especially Murphy and Haji in the main roles, clearly thrilled to be a part of something that was resonating so strongly with many other Torontonians. It’s not a masterpiece, but it does speak to the city’s appetite for Ford-skewering art.
And let’s face it: the mayor may be down, but he’s not out. Material for an operatic sequel probably won’t be hard to come by.
Photos by Richard Lu.