'It's not a pornographic presentation': Rufus Wainwright's Hadrian and other boundary-pushing operas

Canadian Opera Company's new production, Hadrian, focuses on a gay love story and features nudity and sexuality. But for its creator, Rufus Wainwright, it's not about shocking audiences, but representing gay men on opera stages.

Opera about the Roman emperor contains nudity and gay sex scenes

Isaiah Bell, left, and Thomas Hampson, right, share intimate scenes in the Rufus Wainwright-composed opera, Hadrian. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Forbidden love. Sex. Betrayal. Murder. As far as its content, the new production Hadrian — composed by Rufus Wainwright and staged by the Canadian Opera Company — falls squarely within the canon of classical operas the pop musician has long admired.

With one exception: Hadrian centres on the love story between the eponymous Roman emperor and a young Greek man named Antinous, believed by some historians to have been the great love of his life. 

"I'm a gay man, and gay men have been fans of opera for hundreds of years, but sadly there's not been any big characters who are gay on the stage," said Wainwright, during a break at the opera's dress rehearsal earlier this week. Hadrian has its world premiere at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday.

Wainwright is seen at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto on Sept. 14 during a rehearsal. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Hadrian features some nudity and a sex scene between two men, but Wainwright doesn't think it'll upset more traditional opera-goers.

"We felt it necessary to illustrate the gay love act as it is, but we wanted to do it tastefully. It's not a pornographic presentation," he said.

Most opera lovers are "pretty sophisticated, so I actually don't think they'll be as fazed as one would think," he said. 

After all, opera fans have been faced with much more shocking fare than Hadrian in the last few years. There have been a wide range of provocative opera productions that challenged audiences for a variety of reasons: from the inclusion of graphic sex and violence to staging that incorporates insensitive political or historical contexts. 

Royal Opera House: The Kasper Holten years

During the six-year tenure of Danish artistic director Kasper Holten, the Royal Opera company housed within London's quaint Covent Garden showed operas that were anything but. 

His 2016 production of Lucia di Lammermoor had the audience booing and demanding refunds after watching scenes involving sexual violence, stabbing and a miscarriage shown in graphic detail. Some critics were fans, though, with the Guardian's Erica Jeal calling it disturbing but powerful.

That production came on the heels of 2015's Guillaume Tell, which featured a nude rape scene that outraged many patrons. Earlier, the company's Rusalka in 2012 included scenes of a cat sexually assaulting a water nymph and a gritty brothel among its backdrops.

Still, Holten seemed defiant. Around the time of his 2017 departure, he said depictions of sex and violence still have a place in modern opera.

Nazi-themed Tannhauser

What was supposed to be one of the highlights of the celebration of the bicentenary of Richard Wagner's birth in 2013 came to a crashing halt upon opening night of a modern "update" of Tannhäuser.

The new version of what was originally a romantic opera was set in Nazi Germany and included scenes of performers singing in gas chambers and a family having their heads shaved before being executed. The audience booed loudly and many people stormed out mid-performance.

Some opera-goers were said to be so traumatized that they had to receive medical assistance.

The director of Germany's Rheinoper, which staged the production, said the intent was to "mourn, not mock" Holocaust victims, but it was clearly a message lost in translation.

The production was cancelled almost immediately and re-imagined as a concert alone, without the Nazi-themed staging.

Fans of the art form have been faced with the unexpected since its earliest days and myriad boundary-pushing interpretations since.

Take Richard Strauss's Salome, for instance. Based on Oscar Wilde's take on the tale of the biblical temptress, it was deemed so sexual in its original 1905 incarnation that opera star Marie Wittich refused to perform its famed Dance of the Seven Veils, necessitating the employment of a dancer. The piece was banned in London until 1907 and audiences regularly rioted and walked out during its performances.

A #MeToo take on Don Giovanni

Incarnations of Don Giovanni (or Don Juan) have landed on "most shocking operas of all time" lists because its subject matter is so innately sexual: the misadventures of a Lothario who uses and discards women, often with tragic consequences.

An upcoming interpretation could also prove controversial: Opera Queensland's rendition that promises to be a #MeToo take on Mozart's classic. The new version is directed by a woman, Lindy Hume, who wanted to change the ending by letting the women Don Giovanni has discarded — not a patriarch figure — deliver comeuppance to the cad.

These women are to be naked. Opera Queensland put out a call for 200 women to appear nude or nearly nude in the role of "Furies" who drag Don Giovanni down to hell. 

"We want as many women as we can who are up for the adventure of tearing down to hell one of the great misogynistic womanisers in history, Don Juan," Hume said in an interview with Australia's public broadcaster ABC.

How the audience will perceive the feminist message will be seen when it premieres Oct. 19.