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Comment: How do we scale the wall of misguided thinking behind Canadian Opera Company's Hadrian?

By John Terauds on November 30, 2013

I am upset about Monday’s liberally-leaked announcement that the Canadian Opera Company has commissioned Rufus “Prima Donna” Wainwright and playwright Daniel MacIvor to write Hadrian, a new opera for the 2018-19 season.

The announcement was anticipated in the pages of both the Globe and Mail and Star on Saturday by experienced writers who unthinkingly repeated what they were told: that the company’s last Canadian commission had been The Golden Ass, Robertson Davies’ last major piece of writing, set to music by Randoph Peters. It premiered in 1999, never to be heard again.

Um, no.

Five years and 11 months ago, I sat in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre as David Ferguson, then chair of the Canadian Opera Company board, announced that the country’s premier producer had commissioned a new Canadian opera for the 2011-12 season, the first major commission since 1999.

The composer and librettist, Torontonians James Rolfe and Anna Chatterton, arrived with considerable experience in their chosen fields as well as in writing operas for smaller stages. Both were proudly trotted out to us visiting media types as well as to the enthusiastic throng of Canadian opera supporters present that day.

After that? Total public silence.

That announcement papered over Toronto composer Alexina Louie and David Henry Hwang’s The Scarlet Princess, workshopped by the COC in 2002 and then tossed into oblivion.

Another commission to disappear into a black hole was a new opera based on the life of poet Pauline Johnson by Margaret Atwood and Randolph Peters, announced by Bradshaw in 1999. [Please see correction/clarification below]

So, what about Hadrian?

Rather than being the brave, first commission by the Canadian Opera Company in nearly 20 years, it is the latest in a string of commissions that have ended in nothingness.

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell’s reaction when confronted by an orphaned Ernest Worthing: to lose one opera is a misfortune, to lose three is carelessness. Anyone commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company to write a new play clearly needs to be warned that this producer has an abysmal track record of nurturing original work.

Ironically, this is happening in a city that is known the world over as a marvellous incubator of new opera-writing talents, thanks to the work of Tapestry and the late-and-lamented Queen of Puddings.

Then there is the choice of authors.

Daniel MacIvor, the librettist for Hadrian, is one of the most brilliant theatre artists of our time. He knows the stage, and he is an incredible storyteller.

Rufus Wainwright is an internationally loved singer-songwriter whose first opera, Prima Donna, created quite a stir and, after some revisions, was presented at the Luminato festival three years ago after having been rejected by the Metropolitan Opera — the company that had commissioned the work in the first place.

My impression at the time was that Wainwright was in love with the idea of opera rather than with what he could achieve with the artform — like being in love with love rather than knowing how to love.

From a purely professional point of view, it was hard for me to respect someone wearing the title of composer when they don’t actually know how to orchestrate a score. I know it’s done all the time in the pop music business, but art music has, at least until now, reserved the label of composer for people who can do more than outline a basic melody and then hand it over to an underling to please fill in the blanks.

I know, the ever-drunk Modeste Mussorgsky could not orchestrate to save his life. So I’m prepared to gleefully eat my cranky words if Hadrian turns out to be our generation’s Boris Godunov or, at the very least, Khovanshchina.

One last item:

During his interview for yesterday’s article, Canadian Opera Company general director Alexander Neef said to the Globe’s Robert Harris that, “I’ve always deplored the useless and misguided kind of musical nationalism. In the end, it’s about creating good work.”

It’s a comment that comes out of the blue, given that the artists commissioned by the COC are Canadian. So what does this mean?

Perhaps Neef is unintentionally referring to repeated nagging from a number of people about the lack of Canadian operatic content on the Four Seasons Centre stage. In that case, Neef is ignoring or forgetting about a number of successful operas written in recent years by Canadians but premiered by other opera companies.

What, exactly makes them not good enough? Is there something about the good of opera that many of us don’t understand?

Clearly, Wainwright is a conduit to an audience that would not normally be interested in opera. Signing him up to write something — an undertaking the Metropolitan Opera’s Peter Gelb doesn’t appear eager to try again — expresses hope that Wainwright’s glowing pop credentials will sprinkle fairy dust at the box office.

We will have to wait and see how that works out. But I can’t help thinking of the popera acts of the last 10 years, and how they have not helped their fans cross over into art music. On the symphony side, the whole pops-concert effort also failed to build audiences for classical concerts.

The pops concert is nearly dead. Popera will be distant memory a generation from now.

Yes, Wainwright will bring new faces to the Four Seasons Centre, but, I’ seriously doubt he will do much to advance the artform and help it evolve with its times. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it pains me to know what is being passed over in the process.

So, in summary, what do we have? An opera company with a poor history of nurturing talent wound up with a composer who has some learnin’ to do chasing after an audience that may not be as curious about opera as the dreamers think.

Could Hadrian be the Canadian Opera Company’s Waterloo?

Do feel free to disagree.

For reference, you will find Robert Harris’s Globe and Mail article here, and Martin Knelman’s Toronto Star article here.

Correction/clarification for the historical record [Dec. 1]:

I heard from Randolph Peters, who cleared up some details on previous COC projects:

Peters explained how his involvement with the Canadian Opera Company began as composer-in-residence, creating the opera Nosferatu, premiered at Harbourfront. This led to the commission for The Golden Ass, premiered at the place now known as the Sony Centre in 1999.

Peters was then recommended as the composer for a libretto Margaret Atwood has written about poet Pauline Johnson. Peters suggested the need for some more dramatic material. Atwood responded with a libretto idea based on the Sumearian myth of Inanna.

The Pauline Johnson libretto, after some time in a dark wood, is supposed to be premiered by the City Opera of Vancouver this coming May, with a score by Tobin Stokes.

Peters writes that he spent five years working full-time, completing and orchestrating 90 per cent of Inanna, which received two  workshop sessions at the COC. Further development was put on hold when Richard Bradshaw died suddenly in August, 2007.

The composer has met with Alexander Neef and COC music director Johannes Debus, but has not noticed any interest in reviving the project. He has proposed another opera idea, which the company has so far not picked up.

John Terauds

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