Rufus Wainwright Preps New Opera Here

The singer/composer will workshop "Hadrian" for Opera Fusion: New Works ahead of its Toronto world premiere, and the public will have a chance to attend

click to enlarge Rufus Wainwright - PHOTO: MATTHEW WELCH
PHOTO: Matthew Welch
Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright will be here in March to workshop his new opera Hadrian, as part of the Opera Fusion: New Works partnership between Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music’s Opera Department.

Wainwright, a prolific and Grammy-nominated popular songwriter and vocalist with a keen interest in contemporary Classical music, is working on Hadrian with Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor. The piece was commissioned by Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company in 2013 and is scheduled to have its world premiere there during the 2018-19 season. Wainwright previously composed the opera Prima Donna.

Opera Fusion brings composers and librettists here for residencies. They work with CCM students on their projects, hoping the experience will help in developing their work for formal presentation. 

For the public, the highlight of Wainwright’s Hadrian residency will be a March 21 presentation of excerpts from the opera-in-progress, with him and librettist MacIvor present for a Q&A. Also present will be Peter Hinton, directing Hadrian for the Canadian Opera Company, and that company’s music director, Johannes Debus.

The presentation will occur at The Transept (1205 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine), It is free, but reservations are required. Cincinnati Opera will start accepting requests at 10 a.m. on Thursday at its website, cincinnatiopera.org, or via phone at 513-241-2742.

Wainwright will also use his Cincinnati stay as an occasion to give a full solo concert at downtown’s Taft Theatre on March 16. Tickets are on sale at tafttheatre.org.

Since 2011, Opera Fusion has racked up an impressive record for shaping new operas that go on to fully staged performances, such as Cincinnati Opera’s Fellow Travelers and Morning Star and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ Champion. Last year, Opera Fusion brought Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage and composer Ricky Ian Gordon here to workshop a Metropolitan Opera-commissioned adaptation of her play Intimate Apparel.

Fellow Travelers — the opera about a gay federal government employee’s love affair during the witch-hunting era of McCarthyism — was composed by Gregory Spears with a libretto by Greg Pierce and is based on the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon. It has been a particular success since its 2016 Cincinnati Opera production, which generated rave reviews. It had its New York premiere last weekend at the Prototype Festival and will be staged by Chicago’s Lyric Opera in March. In June, Minnesota Opera will present a new production of it. Additionally, Cincinnati Opera has released a live audio recording of its production.

Hopes are high for Hadrian, too.

“We’re excited about working with an artist like Rufus Wainwright because most of his many fans may not necessarily have expected him to choose opera as his medium of creative expression,” says Marcus Küchle, Opera Fusion’s co-artistic director. “And after wonderful collaborations with many prestigious U.S. opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, Hadrian is our first international collaboration.”

Robin Guarino, also an Opera Fusion co-artistic director (as well as a CCM professor of Opera), adds, “It’s always exciting for our CCM students to work with a living composer and to go through this process. Our cast is entirely CCM students and alumni.”

Hadrian tells the story of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his profound grief following the death of his lover, Antinous, a young man in his entourage. Wainwright has said he envisions this being produced on a grand scale. Wainwright has also said he was inspired by Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel Memoirs of Hadrian. 

“Hadrian was an emperor filled with ambition, sensitivity and intelligence,” Wainwright says in a statement. “Like all big political figures, he also had a tormented and brooding dark side. Perfect opera material.”

“It’s important to bring back some of that grandeur of opera of the past,” he continues. “I think in our modern world, among younger audiences especially, there’s a hunger for a sort of spectacle that the opera world thinks is no longer relevant.” 

In an online story last August, CityBeat first reported that Wainwright’s Hadrian would be an Opera Fusion selection with a then-hoped-for arrival in December, 2017. But it had to be postponed and it wasn’t until last week that Cincinnati Opera confirmed the new date.

For more on Opera Fusion: New Works and details on Hadrian, visit ofnw.org.

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