Opera: Rufus Wainwright / Hadrian

Chatting with a friend this week who turned me on to something new.

Like Shaquille O’ Neill with his Gold Bond spray, I find myself still saying to myself: Rufus Wainwright? Wrote an opera? And there’s an extra ‘W’ in his name I wasn’t even aware of?” Ok, I’ll bite.

I know, I’m way behind the times. Wainwright’s been at it for some time now and he’s gotten quite good at it as you can see in this Hadrian clip from the Canadian Opera Company’s 2018 production:

[ Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the whole opera, just a smattering of video clips and have read the synopsis. From that… ]

The story is full-on grand opera with a deeply passionate May-October love affair between Hadrian and a young hunter, Antonius, as its centerpiece. Act II is a flashback sequence at an event where where the two first meet each other and they find themselves smitten. The fact that Hadrian is married to a woman, Sabina, complicates things somewhat as she is rather pissy about this impending dalliance between her man Hadrian and a wise, handsome twink.

Along the way there are many minor subplots concerning, oh, treacherous political alliances, bread, circuses, catfights, complexities of Roman diplomacy, the end of monotheism, the world-changing decision to oppress the Jews, Hadrian’s impending death, and the achievement of eternal life. 

But never mind all that stuff. What you really go to Hadrian to see are a couple of dudes in a May-October romance grinding with vigor on a fainting couch while the music of a full orchestra builds and builds to evoke their singular, otherworldly passion. This couple is really into each other downhill without brakes. It’s quite affecting. For me the musical support of the lovers’ sexual abandon brought to mind a simpler and possibly ancestral variant – the climactic portion of Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947) where the private parts of the main character’s object of desire becomes a sparking Roman candle as Respighi’s Pini di Roma comments on the action with an orgasmic crescendo.

I love the staging with large screen video. The sweeping vista of oceans rippling, stars twinkling and pairs of cut young dudes in thongs with their cocks bouncing around as they strike a Kama Sutra manual full of poses is both a quietly dramatic foil for the music and elegant counterpoint for the live action. 

From my glaring irreverence you may think I’m just clowning but from what fragments I have read, seen and heard Hadrian strikes me a pretty amazing and wonderful achievement. 

Reviews of this opera are mixed. The pans get me riled. I think the classical music industry mafia doesn’t like the idea that a pop songwriter is poaching on their preserve and are determined to place Wainwright in some sort of artistic detention camp for an indefinite term. I’m not clear as to what he has to do to get out of art jail because the critics’ ‘problems’ with Hadrian are those that are ubiquitous in modern opera, and the same critics that tut-tut about Hadrian are the same ones that sing praises for contemporaries like Doctor Atomic – a work that IMO is more guilty of the same lyrical and compositional sins called out with Hadrian by double.

So there seems to be only the weakest desire to cut this budding operatic talent some slack. I call jealousy. A successful pop artist making an easy transition to grand opera? Not so fast buddy. I guess Rufus Wainwright and his collaborators will have to come up with something really torturous to sit through before they will be granted a place alongside the usual suspects in the biz.