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Stephen Harper and the Death of Canadian Culture

10/09/2015 05:27 EDT | Updated 10/09/2016 05:12 EDT
Vancouver Opera

Opening night of Vancouver Opera's Rigoletto was supposed to be a brief mental respite from the relentless electioneering of a nation mere weeks away from a momentous decision.

But the whole experience proved more resonant than one might expect.

With Vancouver Opera itself in sticky financial circumstances -- and with this season being the last standard one before a cost-saving compact "festival" model kicks in in 2016-- it was hard not to think about Harper's seeming contempt for arts and culture, not to mention his own "barbaric cultural practices."

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But just as Rigoletto the court jester (played masterfully by Gordon Hawkins) discovers, I suppose I'd better be careful what I say. Especially in the age of Harperman, when even a bird scientist two weeks away from retirement can get sacked for writing a satirical folk song about the great leader.

And in light of recent announcements that the current government plans to sell off the CBC buildings across this land -- including the one across the street from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (home to Vancouver Opera) -- the very art of cultural commentary might not be long for this nation.

In Verdi's day of course, the opera -- based on Victor Hugo's Le Roi S'amuse (The King Has a Good Time) -- was not without its struggles. The Austrian censors who controlled northern Italy at the time were scandalized by the portrayal of the king as a licentious libertine and serial seducer of young women.

But rather than arrange for Verdi's commissions (some of which were royal) to be cancelled, the plucky composer decided to negotiate personally with the censor, fighting for artistic turf line by line. In the end, the king became a duke, some of the racier scenes were toned down and the opera became a hit. Indeed, its inherent drama, pathos and exceptional music still resonate today, and Vancouver Opera's production -- starring local star Simone Osborne as Gilda- was excellent.

But even though the opera was staged in the late renaissance era (the perennial favourite has been staged as a Rat Pack opera in Las Vegas, and even as a Planet of the Apes production in Bavaria), there was something very relevant about its message.

While I can't really compare Harper to the character of the Duke (well-played with suitable oily charm by tenor Bruce Sledge), I'm afraid he's hardly an Apollo who makes women swoon. But he does appear -- rather amazingly -- to be a serial seducer of the electorate.

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Could it really be true that Harper is leading in the polls? How does he manage to keep pulling the wool over the eyes of innocent voters who, like Rigoletto's virtuous daughter Gilda, still seem to hold a torch for him in spite of his lies, betrayals and broken promises?

How is it that he emerges unscathed every time -- from scandals, from fraud, from hugely unpopular decisions and racist fear-mongering -- like the Duke, forever singing "La donna è mobile" into the sunset while the rest of us lick our wounds after having been screwed by the seeming sociopath yet again?

The thing is, an opera about Harper would be really dull. In fact, an opera about any of our leaders would be. That domain seems best left to the Americans -- a precedent set with Nixon in China -- that could easily extend say to the Republican primaries -- an opera buffa starring The Donald.

Not that the Canadian issues at stake are not without inherent drama and pathos. The Vancouver Foundation has just commissioned an opera about the murdered and missing First Nations women, for example. I'm sure it will be a much more compelling libretto than one on, say, the sad tale of a niqabi would-be-citizen foiled by a mean-spirited civil servant who insists on unveiling her in public.

Here's an idea: how about an opera about the tragic decline of a once proud nation with a newly re-elected prime minister slowly going mad haunted by the ghosts of Tommy Douglas and Lester B. Pearson -- suffering from nightmares about Romeo Dallaire calling for more Syrian refugees to be let inside the gates?

I'm not sure if Harper is an opera fan or not. But if he is, he would do well to consider that Verdi was not only one of the world's most beloved opera composers, he was also a nation-builder. His works celebrated fledgling Italian nationalism and became Republican anthems against the tyranny of the old aristocratic guard. They were filled with passion and hope for a better future.

But as Harper slowly dismantles every political and cultural institution intrinsic to the Canadian way of life -- including the "old stock" -- I wonder who will be left to celebrate our great nation? Will the future Joni Mitchells, Leonard Cohens and Neil Youngs (our own champions of anthemic songs) -- or the next would-be divas like Simone Osborne -- be left to fend for themselves in a neo-liberal, I'm All Right Jack universe where the very voices that support Canadian culture will be drowned out by a loud chorus of chirpy cyber rhythms and algorithmically generated content sponsored by Trump?

A world where, as in Rigoletto, the singing sociopaths keep on trilling "La donna è mobile" deep into a very dark night, while the rest of us are silenced.

- Hadani Ditmars

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