Rufus Wainwright Brings a Grand, Voluptuous, Dramatic Experience to His Opera 'Hadrian'

Rufus Wainwright Brings a Grand, Voluptuous, Dramatic Experience to His Opera 'Hadrian'
Photo: Matthew Welch
Rufus Wainwright was born into a structured family — specifically, a musically structured family. His father (Loudon Wainwright III), mother and aunt (Kate and Anna McGarrigle) and sister (Martha Wainwright) have all followed somewhat traditional singer-songwriter paths.
But since the beginning, it seemed that Rufus was destined to break the mould of this family dynasty, as the indie pop musician spent the last decade writing scores to dance productions, reinterpreting Shakespeare sonnets, and releasing a multimedia production that found him recreating Judy Garland's famed Carnegie Hall performance.
After composing and co-writing the 2009 French libretto, Prima Donna, Rufus has returned to the world of opera once again with Hadrian, proving that his love for the stage's most ostentatious art form is more than just a passing fad.
"I'm really going to the brass ring here on Hadrian," Wainwright tells Exclaim! "I really subscribe to the old contexts of what an opera should be: a grand, voluptuous, dramatic experience for the listener. And sometimes I feel, in the 21st century, opera has become a little too intellectual, a little too distant and cold for audience members. So, I am into restoring the form back its former glory."
Hadrian tells the true story of Roman emperor Publius Aelius Hadrianus, who reigned during the second century A.D. Mostly known to historians for building Hadrian's Wall, which fortified Britannia (now Great Britain), this production focuses on the ruler's personal life, specifically the grief following the death of his young lover Antinous.
"There are many qualities, certainly for me personally," says Wainwright on the couple's real-life struggle. "His real battle with being gay was incredibly profound and public. It was alright to have these boy lovers, but when he fell in love with another man and had a real relationship, it was very frowned upon."
Presented by the Canadian Opera Company, Hadrian features an impressive stable of artists; with Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor (Never Swim Alone, Marion Bridge) providing the libretto, Peter Hinton (The Way of the World, Alice) behind the director's chair, and one of the world's most celebrated baritones, Thomas Hampson, in the title role.
But Wainwright is clear that it's this eminent type of collaboration that makes opera so vital and seem larger than life. "In opera, everybody has to work together. There's a monolithic quality to it when it comes together that really requires everyone to focus on the same thing."
Just as Wainwright is looking to recreate the epic spectacle that opera once brought to the masses throughout the mid- to late 19th century, he also wants Hadrian to connect with a modern audience. "When someone hears this piece, I want them to really let go, really be transported to a whole other universe. Forget about our spindly lives and adventure into the high world of drama. It's really important that people come into contact with that kind of Ideal, especially young people. I have a seven-year-old daughter who is really into Taylor Swift. But there's absolutely no feeling or sense or idea put forth that this is about the music. It's all about Taylor Swift. But with opera it's about ensemble, the story, and what the characters require, and I think it's really needed right now in our society."
Hadrian runs for seven performances — October 13, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25 and 27 — at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.