• Composer's Notes: HADRIAN's Rufus Wainwright

    By COC Staff


    Marble busts of Hadrian and Antinous at The British Museum
    Marble busts of Hadrian and Antinous at The British Museum

    Rufus Wainwright on Hadrian

    In this issue of NOTES, we dive inside the mind of Hadrian composer Rufus Wainwright, ahead of the opera's world premiere on October 13.

    Hadrian composer Rufus Wainwright

    When I first read the fabulous Memoirs of Hadrian  by Marguerite Yourcenar, a novel which inspired at least three generations of gay men, I was instantly struck with the idea of transforming this historical subject into operatic form.

    Both its intimate nature and wild grandeur seemed perfectly suited for what opera does best: creating a hyper-illustration of the dark inner lives of people up against formidable outer circumstances, while at the same time musically careening through the surreal dimensions of what lies in between. In my opinion, no other theatrical form truly refracts life into myriad vibrantly bright colors as much as opera does, and the tale of the Roman emperor Hadrian is a diamond perfectly cut for such a task.

    Hadrian score detail

    In this new piece, I continue to follow my sincere love of long melodic lines mixed with rich orchestral textures, a pattern begun in my first opera, Prima Donna. But whereas the rainbow refraction is occurring, it’s through a much darker and harsher lens.

    This story unfolds amidst the upper echelons of a brutal militaristic state and involves historical facts wrapped up in total speculation and surrounded by the supernatural. My Hadrian is a surreal romp through time and space, mixing true occurrences with complete fabrication in order to illustrate a vivid “creative snap shot” of the Classical era.

    Rufus Wainwright with librettist Daniel MacIvor at the first orchestra read-through of Hadrian

    The opera focuses on the emperor’s true but problematic love of the beautiful male youth, Antinous. All the while, the dark specter of monotheism rises in the distance, heralded by the Jews and early Christians, which would ultimately destroy the lovers’ ancient pagan belief system. Historical research shows how huge tracts of Hadrian’s life and legacy were purposefully destroyed by vicious detractors — a tremendous tragedy, since judging by surviving accounts, he was a productive and just ruler. This, of course, is heavily complicated by his massacre of Jews, which cannot be forgotten, and is a major focal point of the opera, the results of which we are still confronting today.

    (l-r) T
    homas Hampson (Hadrian) and Isaiah Bell (Antinous) in rehearsal for Hadrian

    His stabilizing of the Empire; his focus on philosophy, arts and architecture; his emphasis on diplomacy instead of brute force; and eventually his successful transfer of power. These achievements, as well as the dark stain of the massacre, would be better known and more deeply understood had it not been for Hadrian’s overt homosexuality. Almost immediately after Hadrian’s death, the patriarchal dictates of mankind took over the narrative, leaving the pathetic ancient observation that he “wept like a woman” when Antinous drowned to overshadow all his accomplishments.

    Rufus' view in Aspen while composing 

    I continue to explore the fascinating ideas which swirl around the subject of my second opera. But I am a composer, and therefore my armchair intellectual reach should be superseded by the music — music that I hope you enjoy.

    Have a great idea for an opera story that should be featured in this space? Let us know!

    Thank you for joining us for the world premiere of Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor’s Hadrian. 

    Take your culture game to the next level with our monthly eOpera.



    Synopsis and Librettist's Notes


    | Spoiler Alert: This synopsis reveals key plot elements...

    First Listen: The Music of Hadrian | Our subscribers were the first to hear this excerpt live at...

    Dramatically Roman: The Costumes of Hadrian | “They’re definitely Roman-inspired,” says award-winning Canadian designer Gillian Gallow...

    HADRIAN Adorned: Jewellery Inspired by the Opera | There’s one thing you should know about jewellery designed by celebrity stylist Gillian Steinhardt...

    Your COC1819 Reading List | We've prepared a list of excellent reads featuring titles that inspired the operas of our upcoming season...
    Photo credits (top to bottom): (1) Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin; (2) Matthew Welch; (3,4) COC;  (5) Gaetz Photography; (6) Courtesy of Rufus Wainwright
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