This fall, the Canadian Opera Company will present the world premiere of the opera Hadrian by composer Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor. The latest COC commissioned opera is highly anticipated (the last one goes back to The Golden Ass in 1999!) and will feature noteworthy Canadian artists, notably director Peter Hinton, soprano Ambur Braid, as Hadrian's wife, and tenor Ben Heppner, as Dinarchus. Heppner, host of Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on CBC Music, actually comes out of opera performance retirement for this special occasion! And of course two opera legends, American baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role, and Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as the former empress Plotina, bring international talent to the opera.
For this article, I really wanted to have a fresh look into not only the opera itself, but also into what creating and staging a new opera production entails, and how it contributes to the operatic repertoire. Luckily, a friend of mine, Russell Wustenberg, is working on the production as an Assistant Director, and he agreed to answer some questions that I had!
I first met Russell when he was working on (and singing in!) opera performances by Opera McGill, in Montreal
"I HAVE TRIED MANY POSITIONS IN OPERA, I FIND THAT DIRECTING IS ONE ELEMENT OF BEING AN OPERATIC ARTIST."
In brief, what are your main tasks on this production?
As an Assistant Director, I keep a written record of what is decided in the rehearsals. We can then we use that book to restage that production, prepare understudies, and run review sessions parallel with technical rehearsals.
At what part of the process of staging the opera did you arrive?
I was brought in last December to work in designing the show, and that was followed by touch-up meetings to make sure that all the ideas of the show were cohesive. In August, I introduced the production to COC staff to clarify questions about the nature of the work. What is unique about this production is that I have been much more involved in the creative process than prior experiences.
What is the difference between staging a new opera and an already existing one?
Every production opens a series of doors. when you explore a new work you explore the first set of possibility and create the first path to how people interpret it, and will arrive potentially at a different result. With existing repertoire however, these paths become somewhat predictable; opera-goers have come to expect certain interpretations of the work.
Daniel MacIver and Rufus Wainwright have offered their thoughts on every level of the production, opening the conversation with the singers to develop their new roles. It is great for singers to give life to new characters and it's also a daunting task in many ways. I am grateful to have witnessed the development of these sensitively crafted roles. It is an immense joy to have worked on new operas so young in my career and I am happy to have been a part of the living tradition of opera today.
What should the audience know before experiencing the opera?
In order to approach the ancient world, they need to be aware that they are entering in a psychic reality that is completely foreign to our world. The world of Rome is one which is governed by beliefs and predictions that are lost in the sedimentary layers of history and when we look into the past, we look at is through the lenses of every era. So to view Antinous, Hadrian's lover, we can see him with our modern eyes as a statue, and also as through the lens of early Christrian writers who saw him as a clear indication of idolatry, and through that homosexuality as a form of sin. As Hadrian's own contemporaries, Antinous was a political threat because of his proximity to the most powerful man in the ancient world.
What we ask is to approach this telling for its own merits and to allow the necessary freedom for this story to come from ancient time yet to allow us to react as the modern individuals that we are.