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It’s been at least five years since I first read that Rufus Wainwright was planning on mounting an opera about Hadrian. But it’s been some 20 years since the singer and songwriter suspected the Roman emperor’s story “would make a great operatic subject.” And Wainwright, 45, ought to know. “Since I was 13, I have listened to opera constantly, lived with it, slept with it, ate it for breakfast,” he recently told the New York Times. And before that, when he was a child growing up in Montreal, he was getting family members to perform his rendition of Tosca. 

In short, this has been a long time coming. And the wait is over: Hadrian will have its world premiere at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto on Oct. 13. In the meantime, here is what you need to know about the Roman emperor and his epic love story that inspired Wainwright and his team.

1. Hadrian: Master Builder

You’ve most likely heard of Hadrian’s Wall, the 120-km-long stone partition in present-day Northumberland that demarcated the Roman empire’s northern most border in Britannia. Yes, Hadrian, who reigned from 117 to his death in 138 AD, ordered its construction but the emperor, who fancied himself an amateur architect, is also responsible for some of antiquity’s most recognizable architectural feats. That includes the Pantheon, the best-preserved monument in Ancient Rome. Although it still bears the name of Marcus Agrippa—Augustus’ general built the Pantheon in 25 BC, but it burnt down (twice, if you can believe it)—what stands today is thanks to Hadrian. He kept Agrippa’s dedication on the facade as a clever way to connect himself to the golden age of Augustus, the emperor he tried to emulate not just in his building programs, but also in his policies and defence.  There’s also Hadrian’s mausoleum: and although he was smart enough to not make his final resting spot bigger than Augustus’, of which his is almost an exact copy, Hadrian’s has come to define the city of Rome. But his magnum opus is located just 30 km outside of the city. It’s referred to as Hadrian’s villa but it’s more of a city centre that covers some 120 hectares with its elaborate and complex buildings, mosaics, art, and gardens—including a semi-circular banquet table that overlooked a porticoed pool.

2. The Love Story

Yes, Hadrian was a master builder, the legacy of which we still marvel over today. “But he is mostly unknown for what might be his greatest legacy, his having lived openly as a homosexual and his deep, unshakable love for another man, Antinous,” Daniel MacIvor Hadrian’s librettist, writes. “Homoerotic relationships were acceptable within the Roman nobility at the time but only when the aim was carnal instruction between an adult male and a youth who was a slave and subservient to his master. Antinous was both a free man and too old for this relationship to be sanctioned, and most concerningly for Hadrian’s entourage, Antinous was treated by Hadrian as an equal partner in their love.” They were together for six years before Antinous’ mysterious drowning in the Nile while travelling on a barge with the Emperor in Egypt. Hadrian was so heartbroken that he deified Antinous and built close to 30 temples around the empire to honour him. There were also thousands of sculptures depicting his young, beautiful lover. About 115 survive today—including at least 20 found at Hadrian’s villa. where some think Antinous might’ve been buried.

3. The Book that inspired the opera (and many others)

“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,” Wainwright says in his composer’s notes. The book takes the form of a letter written by Hadrian to his grandson, Marcus Aurelius. The emperor is dying and trying to make sense of his life, including his heartbreak over Antinous’ death. Memoirs of Hadrian, perhaps the Call Me By Your Name of its day when it was published in 1951, made Yourcenar famous. In fact, she was “the first woman ever inducted into the Académie Française,” the New Yorker reports. (“If you want to know what ‘ancient Roman’ really means, in terms of war and religion and love and parties, read Memoirs of Hadrian, they also note of the book.)

 

4. Epic operas require epic performers, not to mention epic costumes

The opera secured some big name talent: two legendary performers will make company debuts: American baritone Thomas Hampson as Hadrian and Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who recently described the opera’s music as “at times it’s jazzy, at times very classical, very romantic,” as Hadrian’s wife, Plotina. Plus “legendary Canadian tenor Ben Heppner comes out of opera performance retirement to make a cameo appearance as Dinarchus.” The costumes are by Gillian Gallow who aimed for a “dramatically Roman” look in order to amp up what would historically be much more “muted”. Think bolder and more vivid colour. The Canadian costume designer also looked to the gold leaf work of Gustav Klimt, the Greek-inspired collections of Versace, and Minoan frescoes.

5. The plot

Over four acts and three locations—Hadrian’s villa, Greece, and Egypt—the opera “is a surreal romp through time and space, mixing true occurrences with complete fabrication in order to illustrate a vivid ‘creative snapshot’ of what the end of the Classical era may have felt like,” Wainwright says. It opens on the last night of Hadrian’s life. He wants to know the truth about Antinous’ death. Was it an accident? Or murder? The plot twists, political deals are struck amidst power struggles, deceptions, and visiting ghosts. And then it ends where it started. But not before a love scene: “I realized that there are no sex scenes written into opera,” Wainwright told the New York Times, “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.”

Hadrian runs for seven performances at the Canadian Opera Company from Oct. 13 to 27. Click here for more information, including tickets.