La Scena Musicale

Monday, 23 January 2012

Rob Ford: The Opera A Rip-Roaring Cautionary Tale

The principals of Rob Ford: The Opera taking a well deserved bow (l. to r. Conrad Siebert, Fabian Arciniegas, Eliza Johnson, Andrew Haji, Rosanna Murphy, Jamilynn Gubbe, Caitlin Wood)

Rob Ford: The Opera - a Rip-roaring Cautionary Tale

by Joseph So

University of Toronto Faculty of Music
New Music Festival
Composers: Massimo Guida, Anna Hostman, Adam Scime, Saman Shahi
Librettist: Michael Patrick Albano
Conductor: Rafael Luz
Director: Erik Thor
2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012
MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building

Andrew Haji (Rob Ford)
Rosanne Murphy (Margaret Atwood)
Fabian Arciniegas (Father)
Eliza Johnson (Mother)
Elizabeth Polese (Remeron)
Andromahi Raptis (Paxil)
Anna Sharpe (Nardil)
Caitlin Wood (Homeless Woman)
Conrad Siebert (Cyclist)
Jamilynn Gubbe (Seagull)

Jerry Springer has one. So does Anna Nicole Smith. Not to speak of former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney. So why not Rob Ford?

I am of course referring to high profile public figures as fodder for grand opera. Given that the operatic art form has always served as a vehicle for social and political commentary, it's only logical that our Toronto mayor would be given the operatic treatment - after all, Ford is, er, larger than life in more ways than one. Given such a controversial, even incendiary, political figure at the hands of young composers with their left-leaning, free-wheeling creative impulses, the end product is inevitably a funny and irreverent jab at the political goings-on of the Ford Nation.

The four members of the Student Composer Project (Massimo Guida, Anna Hostman, Adam Scime and Saman Shahi) each penned a section of the one-hour opera, with a pithy libretto supplied by well known stage director Michael Patrick Albano. It played to a capacity audience at Macmillan Theatre on Sunday afternoon. People started lining up hours (!) before the 2:30 p.m. show to ensure a seat. The audience was in a boisterous mood, cheering Michael Albano and Dean of Music Don McLean lustily even before a note of the music was heard.

In his libretto, Albano wisely stayed away from some of the more contentious personal issues of the mayor, instead focusing on matters of public record. In fact he treads rather carefully and with good reason - it's hard to make the darker sides of one's personal life funny. Except for the opening fantasy sequence of Ford's early life, the libretto sticks closely to the much publicized episodes - cutting the library budget, eliminating bike lanes, getting rid of the homeless etc. With devastating but not mean-spirited humour, the opera had the audience in stitches yesterday afternoon. The confrontation between Ford and the angelic Margaret Atwood drew the most belly laughs. Ford meets his comeuppance when he snatches the wings from Atwood, and presumably perishes, like Icarus, flying too close to the sun. Thus one could say Rob Ford: The Opera is more than just laughs but a modern cautionary tale of sorts.

Musically, it's a bit of a pastiche, with a number of literal quotations - there's even a direct quote from Parsifal in the Judgement Scene! The four composers are quite skillful in their (generally sparse) orchestration, sticking with tonal music and avoiding the intellectual - and thus potentially less accessible - approach. Worthy of particular praise is Massimo Guida's contribution in Scene's 1 and 2. He composes with a particularly strong melodic inspiration, his lyricism greatly enhanced by the excellent singing of Andrew Haji (Rob Ford). Under conductor Rafael Luz who gave a clear if not ideally taut reading of the score, the chamber orchestra played valiantly. No it wasn't note-perfect, but Rob Ford the Opera captures the imagination of the audience and as a piece of social commentary, it succeeds in spades.



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