How will people react to Rufus Wainwright's new opera?

"I have to gird myself," says the acclaimed singer-songwriter/composer. Hadrian opens Oct. 13 at the Canadian Opera Company.
The Canadian Opera Company will present the world premiere of Rufus Wainwright's Hadrian on Oct. 13. (Gaetz Photography)

"My husband reminds me constantly that I have to gird myself for the onslaught at hand and be prepared for slings and arrows, because that's the nature of the game," muses Rufus Wainwright on the upcoming world premiere of his second opera, Hadrian, at the Canadian Opera Company.

"On the other hand, I do feel that I've tried my best to challenge myself and take it to the next level and create something that people are eventually conquered by. I'm definitely confident, but wary, as well, which is probably healthy."

Wainwright's opera is based on the final days of Roman Emperor Hadrian, remembered not only for ordering the violent suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt (a Jewish uprising), but also for his homosexual relationship with the Greek youth Antinous. (A content advisory warns of nudity and scenes of a sexual nature in Peter Hinton's production.)

Wainwright's wariness leading up to opening night is understandable. Hadrian comes nine years after the premiere of his first opera, Prima Donna, at the Manchester International Festival, which had mixed reviews.

"When I wrote Prima Donna, I had never orchestrated anything before by myself, and I was pretty daunted by the whole prospect," he tells CBC Music. "But, I just dove in and did it, and I was able to lean on a very French-sounding Romantic palette, and to play with the orchestra and create these impressionistic bursts, mixed with a kind of longing sadness, and very much leaning on Massenet or Strauss, very 19th-century. And I loved that and I think it worked perfectly, and at the end of the day, Prima Donna will actually go down as a very good piece. A lot of critics found it old-fashioned and not that daring, and I accept that, too, because it was my first opera."

Wainwright says he built on that experience while writing the music for Hadrian. "This piece, dealing with the Roman Empire, has to be more brutal. It has to be more angular, I would say, and have a certain depth to it. I had to surpass Prima Donna, and I think in doing that, I had to maintain some of the Romantic qualities, but really look for my own sound — my own tonalities that come from an individual place — and not be so comfortable. I took some bigger risks. Yes, I probably borrowed from people like Stravinsky, or maybe Benjamin Britten, a little bit. But in the end, it's got to sound like me. We'll see if that happens or not."

'It was intense'

The Canadian Opera Company enlisted playwright Daniel MacIvor to write the libretto, his first. "Our relationship will go down as one of the classic, fraught composer–librettist dances in the theatre," reflects Wainwright, laughing. "We're now in a very good place because we've finished the project and we're both really thrilled with how it turned out, but the path that we took to get there was pretty entangled and there was a real battle between what I felt was the vision of the piece, and what he did. We had to negotiate and trick each other and come to terms with our own failings, at times. It was a real experience, and you know, frankly, I think that makes the piece much better. You can sense the machinations — there was so much attention paid to each step, and people cared so much. So, it was intense."

Intensity of the vocal variety will flesh out Wainwright and MacIvor's characters: the cast for Hadrian includes Karita Mattila (Plotina), Isaiah Bell (Antinous), Ambur Braid (Sabina) and — in the title role — Thomas Hampson.

Baritone Thomas Hampson rehearses a scene from Rufus Wainwright's opera Hadrian with head coach Michael Shannon (seated at the piano) at the Canadian Opera Company. (Christine Lieu/CBC)

"Recently, I was in Verbier, Switzerland, at the festival there, and Thomas Hampson came up to look over the score with me, and we ended up singing through a lot of his role," says Wainwright. "He sang pretty much the whole fourth act, and everybody was in tears. It's like hearing a Ferrari of music performing your piece. That's what it's all about! I'm thrilled beyond words."

'Very Verdian'

One glance at the synopsis for Hadrian and it's clear the music of Giuseppe Verdi is a huge source of inspiration for Wainwright, who says he was a normal child until he heard Verdi's Requiem when he was 13 and was hooked.

"One of the fabulous qualities of Verdi's operas, or a majority of his operas, is this [conflict] between the personal and the public. [The characters] have to decide between themselves and what's good for their subjects (since they're often kings and queens and so forth), so there's this interior battle between what should happen and what you really want to happen, and often times, those are at extreme odds.

"I often found myself turning to Verdi as a template, especially in terms of timing: where the chorus can come in, where the more intimate moments can happen, and the length of those transitions. I owe a lot to Verdi."

Hadrian's title character finds himself in a typically Verdian dilemma. "Hadrian is responsible for the first big-time Jewish massacre, and that becomes a pivotal point in the piece, where he has to basically sign those papers in order for that to happen. There's something very profound in examining a political figure who really tries to be a great ruler and is faced with these unbelievable decisions. And they try to do the right thing and sometimes they do the right thing and sometimes they don't. That's also very Verdian."

For Wainwright, the title character presented an added complexity: "There's this misconception that in the ancient world it was all right to be gay. Or, it was tolerated, at least, when in fact that wasn't true at all. There were very strict rules about having a relationship with the same sex — mainly that you had to be an older man and a younger man, and, sexually, the older man had to be the dominant penetrator. You could never, literally, flip it — to bring in a gay term. [Laughs] And that is really pronounced in the opera. In fact, there's an anal sex Overture! So there's that."

The Canadian Opera Company will present seven performances of Hadrian at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, beginning Oct. 13. For more information, head to the COC's website.


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