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.

Montreal Gazette - - CULTURE -

“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

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