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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 7

Mulroney The Opera

by Joseph So / April 1, 2011

Flash version here

A former Prime Minister gets the operatic treatment

Who says politics and art don’t mix? Or to be more precise—who says political themes make deathly dull subjects in the arts? The fact is that politics have always been fodder for the operatic imagination, from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera to Adams’ Nixon in China. But typically composers treat their subject with the utmost seriousness, even reverence. Not so Canadian composer Alexina Louie and writer/librettist Dan Redican. They have taken an outrageously funny look at one of the most flamboyant and controversial figures in Canadian politics in their newest creation Mulroney: The Opera. Filmed by Rhombus Media with actors and a separately recorded soundtrack with opera singers, the film will premiere in selected cinemas across Canada on April 16 (with an encore presentation on April 27) as part of the Met in HD series, introduced by Peter Gelb no less. Four years in the making, it represents the continuing collaborative efforts of composer Louie and producer Larry Weinstein. They had previously collaborated on Toothpaste and Burnt Toast, two works that have won critical acclaim. Mulroney: The Opera is a much more ambitious project, with a budget of $3.5 million and a huge cast of actors and singers. It captures a particularly interesting moment in Canadian history, a time populated by larger-than-life personalities like Brian Mulroney and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. As the film begins, it’s 2002 and the dignitaries are gathered on Parliament Hill for the unveiling of the Mulroney official portrait. In flashback style, the film goes on to give the viewer a snapshot of the former PM—his childhood in Baie Comeau, his romance with one Mila Pivnicki, his dramatic election win, and the subsequent controversies and scandals that plagued his two terms in office.

I was fortunate to have had a sneak peek at the film and the accompanying documentary. Without giving too much away, I can say that, typical of this genre, Mulroney: The Opera is not meant to be a history lesson. Rather, it retells Mulroney's story in an outrageously comedic fashion, one that is a strange mix of truth and fancy. To be sure, it cleverly captures Mulroney the man and the politician. The cast of characters that made up the Mulroney era are also finely drawn; in fact, the film pokes fun at everyone, living or dead. Stylistically it’s like a series of political cartoons, as librettist Dan Redican so succinctly puts it. Not only has Redican contributed a brilliant libretto, he is also hilarious as the bumbling Fictitious Historian, a sort of “speaker” or “narrator” such as one finds in certain Greek tragedies. Musically the work does not pretend to be original—it’s best described as eclectic, consisting of a pastiche of musical styles that somehow manages to work. The Baie Comeau scene is like a page out of Gilbert & Sullivan, complete with a swaying chorus. Opera buffs are bound to get a kick out of the many literal quotations from famous operas—Don Giovanni, Flying Dutchman, La boheme, Carmen, even Dido and Aeneas! Who can resist the outlandish images of Trudeau and Mulroney in a combative tango set to the music of the Habanera? Or in the film’s denouement when Mulroney desperately intones “Remember me…remember me…” from Dido’s Lament?

Actor Rick Miller is a tour-de-force Mulroney. The make-up department deserves some sort of award. Though he looks nothing like the politician in real life, after three-hour make-up sessions and a prosthetic chin, Miller’s transformation is nothing short of astounding. Others are equally impressive—the profile of Trudeau (played mischievously by Wayne Best) reclining on a chaise lounge, cape and all, sniffing a red rose is priceless. Despite having separate singers and actors, the lip-synching is nearly perfect. The casting of light tenors for several of Mulroney’s antagonists—including John Turner—portrays them as wimpy foes next to the manly baritone of Okulitch (pace character tenors!). The ultimate question has to be: What would be the reaction of the real life Mulroney to this film? The accompanying documentary seems to offer him an olive branch. It stresses that the whole thing is all in fun— “It’s not a grueling satire; there’s a certain affection (for him); if not in the words, it’s in the music,” says producer Weinstein. Okulitch adds that the film “is not trying to be a realistic recreation of his life—it’s meant to be a satire.” The reaction of the 18th prime minister of Canada to Mulroney: The Opera is anyone’s guess. Will he even see it? Perhaps the final chapter of the Mulroney saga remains to be written.

» Mulroney: The Opera plays in Montreal on April 16 and April 27 at the Scotiabank Theatre Montreal,
(977 rue Ste-Catherine O), the Cineplex Odeon Cavendish Mall in Cote St. Luc (5800 boul. Cavendish),
and the Coliseum Kirkland (3200 rue Jean Yves)

»The film will also screen at:

Cineplex Odeon Brossard, Brossard 9350 boul. Leduc
StarCité Gatineau, Hull 115 boul. Du Plateau
Galaxy Cinemas Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke 4204 rue Bertrand
Cineplex Odeon Ste. Foy, Ste-Foy 1200 boul. Duplessis
Cineplex Odeon South Keys Cinemas, Ottawa 2214 Bank Street
Coliseum , Ottawa , Ottawa 3090 Carling Avenue
SilverCity Gloucester , Ottawa 2385 City Park Drive

(c) La Scena Musicale