Mulroney: The Opera

18 mins read

At its core, the new Canadian film Mulroney: The Opera is an intertwining tale of boy meets girl. On screen, Brian and Mila Mulroney, the famous dual-partisan marriage of Conservative to Liberal, form the real-life nucleus for a cinematic satire of one of Canada’s living political legends.

The pre-production back story is also boy meets girl, albeit in a less romantic vein. Juno Award–winning Canadian composer Alexina Louie met funny man, puppeteer, actor and writer Dan Redican in 1995. The alchemy of their talents collided at a composer/librettist workshop put on by a Toronto-based contemporary opera production company, Tapestry.

The result, hastily penned in one hour by Redican and orchestrated overnight by Louie, was the quirky one-act opera Toothpaste. In 2002, Rhombus Media producer/director Larry Weinstein joined the duo, making it boy meets girl meets boy. He embraced the project and opera became cinema.

Toothpaste was an overnight international TV success. The follow-up, egged on by foreign investors Arte and Channel 4, was Burnt Toast. Written for television, Burnt Toast serially depicts the various stages of romantic love. If you count the trio’s second collaborative creation as eight separate operas, which they are, technically (but in reality they hang together as a string of comedic operatic tableaux), then Mulroney: The Opera is Weinstein and Redican’s 10th opera and Louie’s 11th. (The Scarlett Princess was composed for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2002 main-stage season.)

The creative energy of the veteran team teems. Weinstein jokes in an interview that I conducted with them that’s it all about banter. And Louie is emphatic: “This [the banter] is the creative process.” Ultimately all three have a lot of ideas and the comfort with one another to be as critical and irreverent of each other as needed. “Mostly it’s sort of a respect for each other’s craft,” adds Weinstein. “And then it’s mean and hurtful,” quips Redican. The questions remain: Why Mulroney; why a film; and why now?

‘Now’ was really five years ago. At the time, Weinstein and yet another iconic Canadian artist, former prima ballerina Veronica Tennant, were on a rampage about the dearth of Canadian culture within the CBC. Weinstein recalls that he was “upset that culture in Canada was dying on television—especially on the CBC. I felt they had a responsibility, right up to 2007 when they killed [arts strand] Opening Night; they were the ones who were that cultural voice for the country.”

While articulating their case and lunching with then-CBC major player, Richard Stursberg, the question arose: What exactly do Canadians like? Answer: political satire. Idea hatched. Weinstein was, at the time, crazed over Peter C. Newman’s 2005 biography, The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister. Cue the Conservatives: Stephen Harper had just been elected all of three weeks prior. Nonetheless, CBC embraced the project and anted up the development funds to set the project in motion.

Not unsurprisingly, CBC withdrew its interest in broadcasting the finished product in mid-development, and Alliance Atlantis seized the opportunity. Mulroney: The Opera, the film version, premiered as a theatrical release on April 16th at approximately 50 locations across Canada. It was also profiled at a screening in Cineplex’s The Met: Live in HD series.

At the outset, Redican was reluctant to join the project. Convinced the story was a drama and consequently not his turf, Redican maintains that “unless you’re doing things that are mean-spirited and libelous and just saying what a horrible person the person is, there’s not any comedic angle to it.” Ultimately, Redican looked at each moment in Mulroney’s life as a parody of how the former prime minister sees himself. Redican recalls being “talked off the ledge” into writing the libretto by his collaborators. They watched the Mike Sheerin documentary version of The Secret Mulroney Tapes together and agreed to do a comedic take on the story.

The opera is essentially a self-reflective, narcissistic sequencing of Mulroney’s life. Redican riffs that on the surface, “you establish Mulroney as a young idealistic man who really wants to become prime minister. And he gets the thing that he wants and it crumbles to sand in his hands, and he wonders where it all went wrong.” Although that may seem appealing and it’s certainly implied, it’s not what Redican was after. Neither was he interested in making a political statement, although it’s virtually impossible to sidestep it by virtue of the subject matter. The writer’s take, for the record: “If there’s anything political here it’s kind of knee-jerk, nothing profound. It’s a satire about human interactions and foibles, about how a politician sees himself.”

Louie always envisioned the project as stories within a larger story, and leaned towards the protagonist’s anonymity. “I saw it more as a scenes in a life, with arcs in each scene, and the whole film has an arc. It could be a universal story, it could be things that happen in any political person’s life. You have the striving and the wanting to be loved, the rise and the fall. It turns on the desire and the striving of the character himself.”

Weinstein was further convinced of the “everyman” tragic nature of the story when he screened five minutes of excerpts at MIDEM, the world’s largest music market, in Cannes, to 200 international industry players last January. To his surprise, they were fascinated, and he immediately grasped the relevance of Mulroney: The Opera’s thematic content. “I saw that Mulroney could be a fictional character. He is the archetype of a politician, this guy who is blustering and big and wanting to be loved and [is] less than loved by the end. He has his flaws and his good points.” Let the viewer decide.

All three artists immediately keyed into the Shakespearean qualities inherent in the plot, although they disagree on which literary antecedent—Weinstein seeing Lady Macbeth in Mila and Redican going for Mulroney as Lear on the heath (the heath in this case turns out to be an ingenious metamorphosis of Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit).

Regardless, Mulroney is a tragic hero. Weinstein clarifies: “The problem is that there’s a lot of pathos: every time he steps forward there’s like two steps back. There are a lot of moments when you can actually feel sorry for the poor guy. Luckily, he’s got enough tragic flaws that you can’t remain feeling too sorry for him.”

The film begins with a newscaster underscored with “ticker-tape” music, akin to a news anchor’s lead-in. From a soundscape perspective, Weinstein wanted the film to start feeling like an opera, not a Broadway show. The viewer is unwittingly drawn into the world of the opera during the opening credits. The accompanying soundscape mimics what one might hear in the concert hall, instruments tuning, voices warming up—a brilliant device.

It was the decision not to subtitle that straight-jacketed Louie. The words by necessity had to be understood with absolute clarity. “When you write for voice, the words are not always discernable. If you do a huge gesture on the word, you’re not necessarily going to understand the word. You have to place it properly in a certain register so it doesn’t bury the voice.” Weinstein recalls, “I was a dictator towards Alexina in terms of wanting all the words to be understandable. No one does that in opera, even if it’s English opera; you always have subtitles. But because it’s a humorous opera, the words are so important.”

The one exception is the scene when the Mulroney’s receive the Reagans at 24 Sussex Drive. Louie employed the Verdian operatic convention whereby all four performers simultaneously sing/talk over themselves with separate lyrics. Weinstein worked the mix in order to pull out sound bites wherever possible.

One of the main differences between writing an opera for film and the main stage is the specificity of timing the visual content. Louie understands that while one might “milk” the introspective moments for main stage opera, filmed opus moves along at its own clip. Weinstein relied heavily on what he describes as Louie’s uncanny sense of visual treatment. “She’d say, ‘So Mulroney has just grabbed the golden parachute—don’t you need some time for him to get it on before he jumps out of the plane?’ So she was thinking visually, which was really great.”

In practice, Louie would call or Skype Weinstein wherever he was and literally hold the phone to the piano and sing/play the scene for Weinstein, to sort out how much time Mulroney needed to pull on his parachute during the Airbus-scandal spoof. During that same scene, Kim Campbell is promoted from airline hostess to pilot. Louie wrote Campbell’s voice as staccato and highly rhythmic. In retrospect, Weinstein and Redican liken the music to Mission Impossible. The irony was duly noted: “It’s kind of funny—poor Kim had the mission of becoming prime minister after Mulroney,” said Redican.

Redican is also hyper-aware of the push and pull of the constraints and freedoms afforded by the cinematic medium. “Normally, you kind of stop and enjoy the music for a bit. One of the restrictions was we had to consider what’s going to happen visually, whereas on stage you can just stand there and people can bask in the music.”

One of the film’s innovations, the Canada Chorus—a group of 20 culturally diverse singers—functions as a Greek chorus throughout the film. They offer insightful commentary. Weinstein had wanted to use them in the series of scandal parodies, but the set, Parliament Hill/Knox College, was physically too small.

There’s one autumnal pre-Ministerial shot where the chorus appears behind Mulroney, chanting that they “don’t just want someone to tell [them] what they want to hear.” Oblivious, Mulroney bellows that he’s the man to tell Canada what they want to hear. The shot is a technically challenging, beginning from the moment Mulroney walks out his back door, through the laneway-jeering of the chorus to the open-field scene where the fictitious historian—Redican himself—unravels the complexity of the satire for the viewer, complete with accordion player looming in the background. Redican is the only actor who doesn’t lip-synch. (No pressure!)

There’s a lovely scene set on location in Pioneer Village/Baie Comeau—Mulroney’s hometown—where the melody sounds like a traditional folk tune that you could have sworn you heard a million times before: It’s actually original Louie. Her director comments, “That’s quite an accomplishment, when you can make people think they’ve heard something before. It fits so well it’s in the collective unconsciousness already.”

Due to the operatic nature of the project, every scene was thoroughly planned. The longest segment that was cut was 17 seconds—negligible compared to other films. The equivalent of a cutting-room floor was a “pre-edit.” Certain scenes that Louie had written and scored never got recorded, including one of Weinstein’s favourites, written as a setup outside Sussex Avenue. He’s threatening to sell it on iTunes.

Perhaps the biggest technical hurdle Weinstein encountered in the process of making Mulroney: The Opera was the lip-synching. In terms of sequencing, there were several vocal/piano-recording sessions leading up to a series of rehearsals with the singers, then eight days of orchestral rehearsals and five days of recording. Weinstein recalls, “We were all there giving instructions to the musicians, and you have to direct it like two whole casts.”

All three creative heads worked in tandem in the recording studio with Louie, adjusting the musical colours as needed, often re-scoring on demand, and Redican furiously rewriting the lyrics to fit the intended outcome. For Mulroney’s acceptance speech, where the forces of Good and Evil personify themselves, Redican “scrawled out” the scene countless times. Fortunately for Louie, the segment was scored for piano and voice, cabaret-style, which allowed her the flexibility to make her compositional changes on the fly.

When I asked the team if they’d thought about getting the story into the concert hall, Redican’s mind went into overdrive. “I would actually rethink it, take what’s in there and find a different point of attack. I think it’s doable.” Louie jumped in: “The arias would have to be longer—they’re very succinct.” Redican thought he could find a way to “open it up musically between the pieces,” noting that he’d like all the repetitions. Weinstein mused, “Wouldn’t it be neat to have Mulroney and Mila do a little waltz between scenes?” All three agreed that that’s what’s missing— the film version is too intense for the stage.

Is there another filmic opera in the offing? The odds are strong. Louie and Redican are in the early stages of conceiving a chamber opera for the Esprit Orchestra. Next stop, Larry Weinstein and Rhombus Media. Anything’s possible….

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