When they read the script for Mulroney: The Opera, the lawyers were anxious about the money shot: the scene of Brian Mulroney breast-stroking like Scrooge McDuck in a swimming pool full of cash. They feared it could be libellous. The former prime minister, after all, had admitted to taking a mere $225,000 from German lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber, not enough to fill an entire pool. When director Larry Weinstein explained that the wads of bills wouldn’t actually fill the pool, just float on the water’s surface, the lawyers figured that was okay.
Mulroney: The Opera is one of the most bizarre concoctions this country’s eccentric film industry has ever produced: a $3.8-million musical satire, almost entirely funded by the federal government, that amounts to a snake-oil portrait of an ex-prime minister as a lying, delusional, power-mad showboat of grotesque proportions. An original work riddled with allusions to Wagner and Mozart, Bizet and burlesque, this campy biopic condenses Mulroney’s life story into a 75-minute cartoon.
It may invite comparisons to last year’s Score: A Hockey Musical, a $5.3-million folly that bombed at the box office. (Next to hockey, political satire is arguably Canada’s most popular, and vicious, national sport.) But while Score was earnest romance, Mulroney: The Opera is monstrous caricature. And, spooked by Score‘s failure, its producers at Rhombus Media have come up with a novel way to spring it on audiences, using high art as the commercial hook. Mimicking the format of Cineplex’s The Met: Live in HD series, the movie is set to play on 72 screens across Canada as a single Saturday matinee, on April 16, followed by just one repeat showing on April 27. The general manager of the Metropolitan Opera will even introduce it on video.
Over four years in the making, Mulroney: The Opera was created by the team behind Bravo!FACT’s quirky comic operas Toothpaste and Burnt Toast (2005): Weinstein, composer Alexina Louie and writer-librettist Dan Redican. Weinstein, a specialist in films about classical composers—whose original dream was to be a political cartoonist—told Maclean’s that he was inspired by Peter C. Newman’s book The Secret Mulroney Tapes. He had to prod Redican into writing it. “I quit about three times,” says Redican. “Eventually I saw it as a series of political cartoons.”
Filmed as 19 stylized vignettes with 31 singing roles, it’s an ambitious production. Almost every role is a construct, with an actor lip-synching lyrics recorded by an opera singer backed by Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra. The virtuosic Rick Miller, a frequent collaborator of Robert Lepage, plays Mulroney, with a prosthetic chin and a Gothic baritone voiced by Daniel Okulitch. And the lip-synch only seems to exacerbate the satire—on some level, politicians are always mouthing the words.
Mulroney: The Opera traces the Life of Brian from his Baie-Comeau, Que., birthplace—shot in Toronto’s Pioneer Village as a pastoral vision of a company town—to the Shamrock Summit. Its hero/villain is cast as a Canuck Citizen Kane. “I’m the old glad-hander,” he sings, courting Mila at the country club pool. “Close the deal with a wink and a lie.” While he eyes his conquest like an oily Lothario, Mila—portrayed by Stephanie Anne Mills and soprano Zorana Sadiq—comes across as a Sex and the City shopaholic with a heart of gold.
The opera zips through a suite of scandals, from tainted tuna to defence minister Bob Coates (Sean Cullen) getting a lap dance from a German stripper tricked out as a Wagnerian Valkyrie. The Meech Lake accord slides from a bump and grind with Robert Bourassa to a Carmen tango with a devilish Pierre Trudeau. The show’s refrain: “All good things come from America.”
At one point Mulroney bursts onto the set screaming, “Call my lawyers! This is libel! I never said that!” Weinstein calls the scene “pre-emptive, in an entertaining way.” But given that his subject “has seen much worse,” he doesn’t expect him to sue, and even has fantasies of Mulroney attending the premiere. “We ended up liking him in a perverse way. He’s a great character. I don’t think Harper would be as much fun.”