Will Hadrian Conquer? on the Eve of the Premiere of Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor's Hadrian, Wayne Gooding Charts the Fraught Genesis of a Major New Canadian Opera

Opera Canada, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Will Hadrian Conquer? on the Eve of the Premiere of Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor's Hadrian, Wayne Gooding Charts the Fraught Genesis of a Major New Canadian Opera


More than a decade in the making, this summer the Canadian Opera Company fine-tunes its biggest and riskiest creative venture in two decades. In October, the curtain goes up on the world premiere of Rufus Wainwright s Hadrian, the first full-length commission the company has presented as part of its mainstage season since Randolph Peters' The Golden Ass in 1999. Both works are stories of ancient Rome, both are inspired by literature (Ovid's Metamorphosis and Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian) and both have prominent Canadian writers as librettists (the late Robertson Davies and Daniel MacIvor). But beyond the incidental similarities, the two operas are worlds apart in subject matter and musical temperament, and the company arguably has much more riding on this latest venture. "The challenge of any new opera is that it will always be part of a season of masterworks," says COC General Director Alexander Neef. "We made a deliberate, out-of-the-box decision. In picking Rufus as the composer, it was a risk that we incurred."

After years of fielding criticism that the COC has a weak record of championing Canadian work, Neef has committed to move the company to a regime in which it stages a home-made piece every other year. But when he went public with the all-Canadian Hadrian commission late in 2013, there were howls of outrage."How do we scale the wall of misguided thinking behind Canadian Opera Company's Hadrian?" music critic and blogger John Terauds asked in a widely circulated column that questioned Wainwright's credentials as a composer. "In 2018, after a decade under Mr. Neef, the COC will have received around $20 million through the Canada Council, and the only new Canadian music heard on the COC's mainstage will have been by Rufus Wainwright. This will be Mr. Neefs legacy," conductor Bramwell Tovey huffed in a very hostile piece published by Maclean's. Composer John Beckwith was more colourful in his dismissal: "The commission suggests a risk comparable to hiring someone to remove your tonsils who is not a qualified member of the College of Physicians."

None of the critics questioned Wainwright's passion for opera, and certainly not his credentials as an internationally successful songwriter and performer. Nor was there an issue with the iconic gay story, which tracks the profound love of the Roman Emperor for Antinous; from their first meeting to the youth's mysterious death by drowning in the Nile and subsequent deification by a grief-stricken Hadrian. That the relationship was taboo at its outset by today's standards for same-sex, intergenerational love affairs garnered less attention than Wainwright's lack of formal musical training. His first opera, Prima Donna, about an all-but-forgotten opera diva's attempt to return to the stage, had culled mixed reviews. Teraud's take on the piece, which had its North American premiere at Toronto's Luminato Festival in 2010, was that Wainwright was "in love with the idea of opera rather than with what he could achieve with the art form ... From a purely professional point of view, it was hard for me to respect someone wearing the title of composer when they don't actually know how to orchestrate a score." Ouch!

Despite the disdain, the COC stood by its commission. Accepting that it thwarted general expectations that such a prestigious assignment would inevitably land with the country's classical-music establishment, Neef argues that the whole idea of a commissioning policy is to explore all aspects of what a Canadian opera might be. His history with Hadrian began when he was asked to sit down with Wainwright shortly after seeing the world premiere of Prima Donna in Manchester, England, in 2009 to offer a frank assessment. Despite reservations about characterization, dramatization and, yes, musical texture, he says he "saw something in the work, heard a real desire to write an opera, which is not something I hear in every new opera."

The idea of Hadrian took shape in discussions over the next couple of years, and gelled when, at Neef's insistence, Wainwright agreed to pursue the project in partnership with a librettist well versed in theatre. …

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