THE OTHER RUFUS WAINWRIGHT
The singer and composer returns to the operatic realm in his historical epic Hadrian, and confirms his deep understanding and love of the form to Arthur Kaptainis.
“Today?” Rufus Wainwright said when asked to name his three favourite operas.
A slight pause.
“Don Carlos,” he started, specifying through his pronunciation the original French version of Verdi’s grand opera.
“Salome,” he continued, referring to Richard Strauss’s one-act biblical shocker.
“And I’m a big fan of Jenůfa.” That would be Janáček’s heartbreaking tale of a single mother in a Moravian village.
It is a remarkably sophisticated list from an artist known to millions as a popular singer. But the same musician will be taking a bow Saturday night in Toronto after the première by the Canadian Opera Company of Hadrian, an opera set in ancient times and focusing on the Roman emperor
of the title and the mysterious death of his young favourite, Antinous.
“There are little things we are ironing out,” Wainwright said from Toronto, two days before the dress rehearsal. “But this ship is ready to sail.”
Those expecting a hybrid “popera” might be surprised by the classical character of Wainwright’s score and the words by Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor. Insiders talk about complex rhythms while invoking names like Britten and Stravinsky.
The title role is taken by A-list American baritone Thomas Hampson. Karita Mattila, a renowned Finnish soprano, is Plotina, wife of Hadrian’s predecessor Trajan, who engineered the succession. Isaiah Bell, the
Canadian playing Antinous, is a purely classical tenor.
The theatrical content is not altogether traditional. The COC has posted an advisory to the effect that Hadrian “contains nudity and scenes of a sexual nature” and is suitable for ages 18 and older.
“It’s not pornographic or salacious,” Wainwright said of a scene at the beginning of Act 3. “It’s just an actual representation of two men doing the nasty.”
That colloquial expression arrives with a laugh, but there is no doubt of Wainwright’s serious intentions and abiding love of opera as an art form.
“Opera has always presented itself at dramatic junctures and given me a sense of hope, a sense of perspective, and also just vitality,” he said. “Whether it was first with me coming out of the closet at a very young age, when AIDS was decimating the gay male population, opera was the only music I could relate to that was dealing with that kind of tragedy.”
He credits opera also with giving him “a sense of purpose” during his battles with drugs and alcohol. “I always knew if I wanted to work in the world of opera, if I wanted to aspire to that kind of high art form, I had to get my s--t together.”
Finally, opera was an aid to inner peace after the death in 2010 of Wainwright’s mother, Montreal singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who had come to share his passion for the form. “That helped me really internalize and free myself from the sadness,” Wainwright said.
When AIDS was decimating thegaymale population, opera was the only music I could relate tothatwas dealing with that kind of tragedy.
“My dad is not the biggest opera fan,” he added, referring to American singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. “He likes Bob Dylan. But he’s coming (to Hadrian). I appreciate that.”
Hadrian is not Wainwright’s first opera. Prima Donna, a tale of an aging diva contemplating a comeback, was originally planned for the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. The big house balked when Wainwright insisted on writing the libretto in French (with Bernadette Colomine). Prima Donna was given its première in 2009 by the Manchester International Festival in England and was picked up by the New York City Opera and the Luminato Festival in Toronto.
Critics were split. “Prima Donna is the work of a real composer who understands the proper use of a trained voice and speaks the harmonic dialect of romanticism,” was the view of the present writer.
It should have been clear to all that Wainwright had composer chops. He was briefly a music student in the 1990s at McGill University.
For all its soaring lyricism, Prima Donna is an intimate piece. Hadrian is made of sterner stuff, mixing geopolitics and human passion in a manner that might bring to mind Don Carlos.
Third of the traditional Five Good Emperors who reigned from AD 98 to 180, Hadrian is remembered for consolidating the borders of the empire and strengthening the imperial bureaucracy. A man of letters, he has long been taken to be homosexual, the primary evidence being his infatuation with the Greek youth Antinous. (Secondary evidence was his unhappy and childless marriage to Sabina, niece of Trajan and a supporting character in the opera.)
Antinous (the name is pronounced with four syllables) died in AD 130 while accompanying Hadrian on a journey on the Nile. It is known that he drowned, but the circumstances are unclear.
Devastated by his loss, Hadrian elevated Antinous to godhood; founded a city, Antinopolis, at the site of his death; inaugurated athletic games in his honour; and encouraged the creation of sculptures (more than 100 of which survive) that adhered to Greek ideals.
The cult of Antinous thrived despite the objections of Christians. His name remained current in the 19th century as an icon of male beauty. Oscar Wilde made at least three references to him. In 1951, novelist Marguerite Yourcenar popularized the story in Mémoires d’Hadrien, a book that caught Wainwright’s attention. In 1984, the late Cambridge scholar Royston Lambert published a non-fiction account of the relationship, Beloved and God, from which much of the modern wisdom on the subject is derived.
According to Lambert, Antinous sacrificed himself rather than retire, as an aging youth, from his exalted position as imperial favourite. Other obscure altruistic motives have been proposed for the suicide, if that is what it was. The opera, however, offers another explanation altogether, which cannot be related without violation of spoiler rules.
It can be reported that MacIvor proposed the new denouement, of which Wainwright approved immediately. “I knew right there and then that he was the man for the job,” Wainwright said.
Same-sex love is far from the forbidden subject it once was. Now such themes are on an equal footing with the boymeets-girl stories that form the mainstay of the opera repertoire. Both of the 21st-century pieces presented this season by the Opéra de Montréal — Terence Blanchard’s Champion and Ricky Ian Gordon’s Twenty-Seven — are about gay individuals or couples.
Often these characters are portrayed as closeted or tormented. Wainwright had other ideas.
“The opera world has long
Hadrian’s darkest stain is that he was responsible for one of the first big Jewish massacres. It went violently. And that is very much addressed in the opera.
been a haven for gay men, for hundreds of years, arguably,” the composer said. “It’s really been where they have been able to let down their guard a little bit. But there have never been huge operatic characters that represent their lifestyle.
“There are certain gay characters — let’s say in (Charles Wuorinen’s) Brokeback Mountain or (Benjamin Britten’s) Death in Venice — that are indicative of that type of relationship. But it’s kind of cloudy, in the alleyway, a clandestine affair.
“I wanted to create two huge, larger-than-life, royal opera characters. Like (Wagner’s) Tristan and Isolde or (Puccini’s) Tosca and Mario Cavaradossi. That was very important to me.”
Politics play a role in Hadrian, particularly the threat of a revolt in Judea, where the monotheistic locals cannot abide the panoply of Roman gods. Senators are worried, but Antinous urges tolerance in an aria that functions as a paean to inclusivity.
“Hadrian’s darkest stain is that he was responsible for one of the first big Jewish massacres,” Wainwright commented. “It went violently. And that is very much addressed in the opera.”
Despite this current of realpolitik, Hadrian also has supernatural elements, to judge by the published synopsis. Plotina appears posthumously to strike a Faustian bargain with Hadrian, permitting him to return to the past. Acts 2 and 3 are, in effect, flashbacks.
Apart from a little Latin “for colour,” the language is English. “At the outset, I was somewhat nervous about that situation,” Wainwright said. “Opera in English for me is a 50-50 exercise.”
Composition is not at all ambiguous. While he is grateful for the input of the cast and production team (the director is Peter Hinton and the conductor is Johannes Debus), Wainwright must take credit or blame for the sounds emerging from the stage and the pit.
“I work with Sibelius and the Vienna Philharmonic sound,” he said, referring to the music notation program and one of the options it offers.
“All I will say is that I am grateful for a lot of the technology because it has allowed me to do this. Especially considering the work I have to do otherwise, being a pop star, which takes a lot of time.
“But every single note I could authentically score. I’m there for eight hours a day, going over it. So yes, I put all the work into it. I don’t farm it out.”
Including the orchestration? This is the acid test.
“My orchestration, 100 per cent.”
“Opera has always presented itself at dramatic junctures and given me a sense of hope, a sense of perspective, and also just vitality,” says Rufus Wainwright, pictured in rehearsal last month for Hadrian, which opens in Toronto on Saturday.
Rufus Wainwright rehearses with Hadrian soprano Karita Mattila. The opera focuses on the Roman emperor and the mysterious death of his young favourite, Antinous.
While Rufus Wainwright is grateful for the input of Hadrian’s cast and production team — including assistant conductor Derek Bate, left, and Canadian Opera Company music director Johannes Debus — the composition is all his. Canadian Opera Company