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“Hadrian” stars Thomas Hampson, right, with the conductor Johannes Debus, left, and Ambur Braid.
The beloved soprano Karita Mattila called the score “the mixture of the best possible things for a singer.
This new opera looks interesting-too bad its Toronto and not NYC-didn't know about his first opera and its connection to the Met. A pretty impressive cast. Regards, Len
Rufus Wainwright’s First Opera Was ‘a Nightmare.’ He’s Trying Again.
By Roslyn Sulcas
Oct. 4, 2018
VERBIER, Switzerland — Rufus Wainwright’s eyes filled with tears. He stood quietly, one hand marking time, as the rich voice of the baritone Thomas Hampson filled a rehearsal room looking out onto snow-capped mountain peaks here.
It was July, midway through the Verbier Festival, and for the first time Mr. Wainwright was hearing Mr. Hampson’s rendition of a mournful, soaring aria from his new opera, “Hadrian,” which runs Oct. 13-27 at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto.
“The thing with writing an opera,” Mr. Wainwright, 45, said later, “is that you are so wrapped up in the technicalities — shoveling emotions, time and energy into the score — that you don’t have time to reflect. Then suddenly you’re on the top of a mountain and someone is singing it back at you.”
Melodic and sweeping, with a libretto by Daniel MacIvor, “Hadrian,” which stars the tenor Isaiah Bell and the beloved soprano Karita Mattila in addition to Mr. Hampson, is centered around the passionate relationship between the Roman emperor and his male lover, Antinous. The subject was inspired by Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel “Memoirs of Hadrian,” which Mr. Wainwright read some 20 years ago.
“I instantly knew it would make a great operatic subject,” he said. “And the gay aspect of Hadrian’s life is still mostly unacknowledged.”
This is Mr. Wainwright’s second venture into the thorny trenches of opera. “I do think there is sometimes a feeling of: Who is this pop star coming in here and tinkering in our hallowed space?” he said of the opera world.
That hallowed space attacked when his unabashedly old-fashioned first opera, “Prima Donna,” had its premiere in 2009. Things didn’t go smoothly. (“It was such a nightmare on so many levels,” he said, adding a couple of expletives.)
Originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater, the Met dropped it after Mr. Wainwright insisted on having a libretto in French. “Prima Donna” then opened at the Manchester International Festival in England before going on to Toronto, Australia, London and New York.
It’s still occasionally performed — “That woman refuses to go under,” Mr. Wainwright said — even though it was widely criticized for its narrative flimsiness. A review in The New York Times summed it up as “chic and pointless.”
Some, however, some applauded Mr. Wainwright’s panache. “Strings soar, teeth are gnashed, heroines throw themselves across beds,” Elizabeth Renzetti wrote in The Globe and Mail. “It’s not opera, it’s Opera!”
Asked what he had learned from the criticism, Mr. Wainwright responded with a note of defiance. “I learned that the soul of what I’m offering is difficult for critics,” he said.
But he agreed with the pans that the dramatic structure of “Prima Donna” was “pretty bland” and that he needed to work on darkening his orchestral palette.
“I’ve lifted up the gauntlet on this project,” he said of “Hadrian.” “I’ve said, you’re right, I have to create something more powerful.”
Alexander Neef, the director of the Canadian Opera Company, commissioned “Hadrian” not long after seeing “Prima Donna,” impressed by Mr. Wainwright’s passion for opera and vocal knowledge. “I felt another opera from him was a risk worth taking,” he said.
Openly gay since his early teens, Mr. Wainwright recounted how he has been obsessed with opera since he was a child, obliging his sister and cousins to dress up and act out scenes from “Tosca” in their Montreal home, where he grew up with his sister Martha and his mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigle. (“A flamboyant toddler,” his father, the singer Loudon Wainwright III, says resignedly in a documentary.)
“Since I was 13, I have listened to opera constantly, lived with it, slept with it, ate it for breakfast,” Rufus Wainwright said. “It hooked into all the emotions I had when I realized I was gay — and that AIDS was on the scene and I could die. It was an intense love affair.”
“It’s an amazing swap of emotions, from composer to singer, from singer to audience, like a hot potato of life,” he added. “I do take it seriously and believe in the high culture aspect of the form, but at the end of the day it should be like a baseball game. There is a spectator quality to it: Are you going to cry at that point? Is he going to hit that high note? I think opera has lost a bit of that circuslike quality, which I love.”
“Hadrian,” he said in June at a talk in Paris, will go the whole hog: arias, duets, chorus, a ballet.
Ms. Mattila said that the music was tricky to learn because it didn’t fit into any category or follow traditional patterns of classical music: “At times it’s jazzy, at times very classical, very romantic; the mixture of the best possible things for a singer.”
The piece also features an untraditionally explicit male relationship at its center, and a musical interlude during which Hadrian and Antinous very plainly make love. (“Once Antinous and I have done the nasty, do I go off?” Mr. Hampson asked in rehearsal.)
While gay relationships have been depicted in contemporary opera, Mr. Wainwright said he felt he was bringing something new to the stage that is “unashamedly homosexual and traditional at the same time.”
“I realized that there are no sex scenes written into opera,” he added, “let alone anal sex scenes. I think for some people it will be powerful to see gay love represented in the larger-than-life fashion that only opera can provide.”
Peter Hinton, who is directing the production, said that the scene had made him aware “of how unaccustomed I am to seeing two men making love on stage in any art form. Often nudity and sex on stage go side by side with violence; here it is the most hopeful, tender part of the opera.”
Mr. Neef said that he had no doubt that some audience members would be uncomfortable. “But it’s 2018, and it’s our job to tell these stories,” he said.
Mr. MacIvor, a well-known Canadian playwright, was brought in to write the libretto; the process proved difficult.
“Let’s just say that I don’t know Rufus and I have done anything to dispel the stereotypes about composers and librettists,” Mr. MacIvor said with a laugh. But with some mediation from the dramaturg Cori Ellison, he said, they found a way.
“I was thinking very much about singability, trying to end sentences with pretty words, paying attention to cadence,” Mr. MacIvor said, “and he would make requests about character or emphasis which I’d find annoying. Over time, though, I see that his instincts were right.”
Mr. Wainwright studied composition at McGill University in Montreal for a year, but he dropped out to pursue songwriting. His self-titled debut album won him a citation from Rolling Stone as the best new artist of 1998, and his solo career took off. (He memorably described some sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll detours in a post-rehab interview in 2003.)
Although Mr. Wainwright had thought about a “Hadrian” opera well before creating “Prima Donna,” he waited, he said, until he felt competent to take on a big production. “There was a big problem when I began writing opera: I didn’t know how to orchestrate,” Mr. Wainwright said. “And I couldn’t conquer the Roman Empire like that.”
He learned much about orchestral and operatic composition from working on “Prima Donna,” which has a two-act structure and a small cast. “Hadrian” is on a much larger scale, with four acts, six leading roles and a full chorus. Mr. Wainwright said that a central influence had been the circular narrative of “Citizen Kane.”
“We begin at Hadrian’s villa,” he said, “travel back through his life and his choices, and end where we began.”
As Mr. Hampson worked through an Act IV aria in rehearsal, he told Mr. Wainwright, approvingly, “You give room for the sound of the voice.” Many contemporary opera composers, Mr. Hampson added, “are so busy setting text, they forget all about it.”
Mr. Wainwright said that being a singer was a weapon in his arsenal. “I know how the voice works,” he said. “My deep connection to the voice and melody — which I think a lot of composers are afraid of — is something I can present sincerely.”
And he left a journalist with a sincere message for the opera world.
“Whatever you may think about me,” he said, “I am an ally and a real devoted soul to this form. I feel there should at least be an agreement that I’m here to stay.”
He gave the abrupt, infectiously guffawing laugh that frequently punctuates his conversation. “Sorry!”
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/arts ... ic-reviews
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