It’s not just a change of subject matter that makes Hadrian a significant leap for an artist known by most fans for songs like Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, and his intensely faithful recreation of Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert: While Prima Donna was something of a chamber piece, with only a handful of characters and an intimate feel, Hadrian is being planned on a much grander scale. “You’ve got everything,” Wainwright and MacIvor say, finishing each other’s sentences, “a big chorus, lots of characters, the Nile … all of South Asia actually, a love story … a political story … all the elements of traditional grand opera.”
It’s precisely that scale that has Wainwright so excited. “It’s important to bring back some of that grandeur of opera of the past,” he says. “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.” As a result, he maintains, audiences often end up being served “a modern operatic production that is trying to relate to their lives, and they’re like, ‘I don’t want you to sing about my life; I’m here to see something bigger and grander.’.”
Far from worrying about the ambitious breadth of Wainwright and MacIvor’s imagination, Neef welcomes it: “I need a piece that’s scaled to the biggest stage in the country, that will fit into a subscription series that includes, basically, the greatest operatic masterpieces of the past 400 years – that has the power to attract and captivate 14,000 to 15,000 patrons, not be a little niche project you do two or three times in a small venue.”
Still, he is hoping to give audiences something they can connect with. “I want to be able to say that you can have confidence that this new piece is going to engage you – it’s not going to alienate you. Opera for the last hundred years, basically since Puccini’s Turandot in 1926, has tended to disconnect audiences from creators. I want to close that circle.That’s something that’s very important to me.”
Neef can’t base his strategic thinking about Hadrian, or any other new opera, on artistic considerations alone. There’s money to think about, too – one reason the COC has held off commissioning a new work for so long. Although the company is relatively healthy financially – it played to 90-per-cent-capacity audiences last season, and actually ended the year with a small surplus – it must keep those audience levels high year after year to remain in the black. That’s hard with any opera considered “modern,” especially one that’s brand new.
And new productions aren’t cheap: It’s possible to spend anywhere from a million dollars to twice that to mount an opera from scratch. That’s one reason the COC co-operates with other companies on so many of its productions – and why it is looking for co-producers for Hadrian. Neef isn’t commissioning Hadrian to necessarily reap a financial windfall; he’s taking a financial risk. But it’s a calculated one.
And to the inevitable criticism he will face for having passed over more traditional Canadian composers to give a pop musician the COC’s first commission in almost 15 years, Neef says simply, “It’s also a risk we have to take.” He notes that he has spoken to many writers and composers in recent years, and continues to do so. But, he adds, “I’ve always deplored the useless and misguided kind of musical nationalism. In the end, it’s about creating good work.
“We should definitely be a window for all great Canadian operatic artists. But it’s a lot harder to create a new piece than to hire a fine Canadian singer or director or stage designer. To just commission something and hope it will work is to do a disservice to the art and the artists. I might be a bit slow in getting there, but once I have confidence in a project, I have confidence in it.”
In the five years leading up to Hadrian’s premiere, meanwhile, the COC can’t help but benefit from the worldwide interest that will no doubt accompany news of Wainwright’s second opera – as a project given impetus by a musical good-bye to his mother inches ever closer to reality.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Hadrian would be the first COC commission since 1999. In fact, Richard Bradshaw, then general director, commissioned two other full-length operas for the COC after 1999, neither of which has been performed.