By far, the most impressive thing about Rob Ford: The Opera is that it exists at all. That, just one year into his term, Toronto’s mayor has inspired a musical production featuring a cast of 17, a chorus of 11 and an orchestra of 20 is nothing short of an astonishing political feat.
And, indeed, the show works best when you un-focus yourself from the action, tune out the words, and instead sit back and take in the tableau of it all. Because the fact that you’re sitting there, gazing at a grand jury of librarians pass judgment on the mayor while an avenging-angel Margaret Atwood hovers overhead, cannot help but inspire such thoughts as “Holy shit, I am watching a fucking opera about Rob Ford.”
Closer scrutiny, however, is not terribly kind to the Rob Ford opera, a production of the opera division of U of T’s Faculty of Music. At first, the opera form lets okay jokes seem triumphantly witty and excruciating jokes seem okay. But the conceit wears out midway. The above-noted scene may be cool as an image, but as a segment of a piece of narrative art, it is a lazy exercise in audience catharsis. Wish fulfillment is an inadequate substitute for insight, in the same way that Sun Media is an inadequate substitute for news.
Which is unfortunate, given the ambition of faculty member Michael Patrick Albano’s libretto: it traces Ford’s life from birth to — not quite death so much as sudden, unexplained disappearance. And turning the mayor’s parents into disappointed hippie intellectuals is a bold flourish of fictionalization that adds little to our grasp of a man who is already a genuinely fascinating character.
Long before he seriously weighed a run for mayor, I was of the opinion that Ford would be a superb subject for a book-length profile. Here is a person whose lack of self-awareness and struggles with intelligence cause him to engage with the world in a different way than most people do. He is not a caricature of a rightwing politician but rather a man outside conventional politics, whose inability to conceive of abstractions renders him incapable of stringing together thoughts into ideas.
That this isn’t ably conveyed in a one-hour, one-act opera is not the trouble. The trouble is that you come out of the show with a poorer understanding of Ford than when you went in. Questioned by an incredulous Atwood as to whether he reads any books at all, Ford proudly declares, “I’ve read the Bible!” However socially conservative the real Rob Ford may be, religion does not figure into his cosmology; the line exists solely for an easy, awkward laugh.
Ford is certainly an operatic figure, but the Rob Ford opera reduces him to a bumbling man-child with distaste for social services. While this is undoubtedly accurate, the characterization could also apply to any number of conservatives. The very fact that there is a Rob Ford opera — and that 931 people attended its lone performance — is a far more effective summary of the mayor’s legend than anything in the show itself. It stands as a monument to the awe he provokes.
“Ain’t never been no David Miller opera,” tweeted Mark Towhey, the mayor’s director of policy and strategy, shortly after news of the show first broke. “‘Nuff said.”