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Rufus, librettist Daniel MacIvor and COC general director Alexander Neef
credit: Chris Young for Globe and Mail

Composed by Rufus Wainwright with libretto by Daniel MacIvor.

Set at the end of the classical era, Hadrian tells the story of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his profound grief at the death of his lover Antinous. Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous, a young man in his entourage, was frowned upon by many in his inner circle. In fact, during this period of the most critical changes in religious history – the rise of monotheism in the face of the end of the old pagan deities – Hadrian’s love for Antinous was not only discouraged, it was dangerous. When Antinous drowns in the Nile at the height of their love affair, many questions arise about the nature of his death. Hadrian offers answers to those questions and in turn raises more questions about self-sacrifice, jealousy, treachery and love itself.

“The story of Hadrian and Antinous has long fascinated me,” explains Rufus Wainwright, on his enthusiasm for the opera’s subject. “Be it through initially reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s classic novel Memoirs of Hadrian, going further afield in investigating the history surrounding his reign – arguably one of the most critical periods in the western time line since it represents the end of the classical era – or most importantly visiting Tivoli, Hadrian’s villa near Rome, which, though crumbling, impressively illustrates the might and vision of an incredible man. He was an Emperor filled with ambition, sensitivity and intelligence and like all big political figures he also had a tormented and brooding dark side. Perfect opera material . . . And then there’s Antinous, essentially the male equivalent to Helen of Troy – though we know he actually existed and exactly what he looked like. At one point he was neck and neck with Christ in terms of cult status after disappearing in the Nile. Imagine what a different world that would have been if he had lived!”

It’s precisely that scale that has Wainwright so excited. “It’s important to bring back some of that grandeur of opera of the past,” he says. “I think in our modern world, among younger audiences especially, there’s a hunger for a sort of spectacle that the opera world thinks is no longer relevant.” As a result, he maintains, audiences often end up being served “a modern operatic production that is trying to relate to their lives, and they’re like, ‘I don’t want you to sing about my life; I’m here to see something bigger and grander.’”


Daniel MacIvor

Daniel MacIvor, the Siminovitch and Governor General’s Literary Award-winning playwright, will make his debut as an opera librettist with Hadrian.

It was the power of Hadrian’s story that first attracted MacIvor to the project, when he was approached to be part of the team this past June. “I resisted at first,” he admits. “Opera is not a form I’m familiar with, unlike Rufus, who breathes it in and out like air. But then I did some research, and what was amazing to me was the story – which I didn’t know at all. And in fact, why I didn’t know the story is part of what we’ll be dealing with in the opera – why the tale of Hadrian and Antinous is not a model in our culture for the power of love.”

“There is a thrill for me in finding the essential function of the fewest words possible in the telling of a story,” MacIvor continues. “And what a story to tell! The deeper I delve into Hadrian’s world and his time, the more parallels I see to how we live today. Are we too facing the end of an era? It does feel that way more and more. And the mystery of why Hadrian’s remarkable love for Antinous – underlined by his bottomless grief – has not been celebrated widely as a model of eros points to a fear of same-sex love that has changed little from his age to ours. I’m honoured to be starting this journey into the world of opera with the COC and inside this powerful and resonant story.”


Alexander Neef by bohuang.ca

Far from worrying about the ambitious breadth of Wainwright and MacIvor’s imagination, Candian Opera Company’s general director Alexander Neef welcomes it: “I need a piece that’s scaled to the biggest stage in the country, that will fit into a subscription series that includes, basically, the greatest operatic masterpieces of the past 400 years – that has the power to attract and captivate 14,000 to 15,000 patrons, not be a little niche project you do two or three times in a small venue.”

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