To the COC artistic direction and the artistic team behind Hadrian,
Yesterday afternoon, like so many around the world, I read in horror of the 11 Jews killed by gun violence in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The gunman had shouted, “all Jews must die” before opening fire on the congregation. As each detail came out I have been more and more disturbed by this attack on my people.
But it occurred to me that I had heard these words before. I had heard them sung two days before by professional artists with the support of an orchestra of 75 players and millions of dollars of funding. Before it played out, in reality, I had seen this scenario played out in your production.
As a composer of opera myself, I came to Hadrian with cautious excitement. This is the first commission from the COC in a long time and I figured it was my professional duty to support the production. In order to get a fresh look, I had purposefully avoided promotional materials. However as I watched the show unfold I grew increasingly upset at the way in which the historical aspects of the show were portrayed, especially in relation to the genocide that the historical Hadrian committed against the Jewish people.
For context, the Hadrianic persecutions of the Jewish people in response to the Bar Kokhba rebellions are some of the defining moments in our history. Jewish culture was profoundly changed because of the systematic destruction of Jewish villages and places of worship, including the torture and execution of the leading rabbis and the desecration of the temple mount. One million people died in the combined casualties of the rebellion, persecutions, and famine resulting from Roman policy in the area. Historians have pointed to this moment as the one where the Jewish people lost its homeland and became a primarily diasporic population.
Needless to say, any portrayal of Hadrian the emperor must confront these historical truths. However, Wainright and McIvor’s portrayal was problematic in its apologism for the crimes committed by the historical figure and also the sublimation of Jewish stories into Christian narratives and imagery.
In McIvor’s telling of the story, Trajan and Plotina confront Hadrian with a choice; sign the document permitting the destruction of the Jews in order to see his lover Antinous for two more nights. At the end of the opera, after finding out about his lover’s fate, Hadrian in a fit of anger signs the document and dies ascending to the realm of the gods.
In reality, the Bar Kokhba rebellion took place a number of years before Hadrian’s death, and by some accounts he personally oversaw the genocide. His direct involvement is attested to by the fact that the persecutions eased after his death.
The goal of the creative team seemed to be to downplay Hadrian’s involvement in the horrors of his regime in order to paint him as a lover, not a fighter, so to speak. His love for Antinous is meant to be redemptive, removing him from the personal responsibility of the political situation playing out around him. I am personally unconvinced by this historical approach, especially when its ramifications are still being played out in the intergenerational trauma of my people and the current political crisis in Israel and the Middle East.
On top of the problematic historical revisionism, the show is also rife with problematic images. In the aforementioned final scene, I saw the apotheosis of a genocidal dictator in a scene that directly parallels the end of Götterdämmerung while a choir of “Jews” sung Lutheran-style hymns in the background, surmounted by what was (before it was redacted) an image of an eroticized Jesus, after I had listened to many different people singing very loudly calling for the destruction of my people. I had heard echoes of the Pittsburgh shooters “all Jews must die” in the words of Turbo and the choruses of the senators. I had heard echoes of Charlottesville’s “The Jews will not replace us” in Plotina’s “I will not be forgotten”.
Hadrian’s acquiescence to the genocide was rewarded with his deification and being reunited with Antinous. This act of evil was rewarded with love and we as an audience are supposed to accept that as good because “he loved” more than anything. Meanwhile, the conflict of the opera is centered on the struggle between the “monotheists” and the Roman pagans.
When Hadrian sings, “the seeds of fallen fruit will sow empires” it was clear to me who is seen as the true successors of the “monotheists”. It was not the Jews, the “fallen fruit”, who converted the empire to monotheism. The implication here is that the Jews are proto-Christians, one of the underpinnings of much anti-Semitic thought.
If these were not the conclusions Wainright and McIvor were after it shows that they were not in control of their images; something that is sloppy and amateurish at best and outright dangerous at worst given the subject matter and current political climate.
It seemed as if Wainright and McIvor were blinded, sort of like how Hadrian was blinded by his love for Antinous, by their goal to portray a healthy homosexual relationship. A good goal in itself, but what we got was a love letter to powerful white men, Wagner, Verdi, and Massenet, that was too caught up in itself to realize it’s own implications.
What I wanted was moral grey area. I wanted exploration of the relationship between the personal and the political. I wanted a critical look at how love interacts with political turmoil. Instead, love became the panacea to absolve Hadrian of all sins, and that’s not the kind of art I’m interested in right now.
Ultimately, I don’t think that your production of Hadrian is anti-Semitic per se. But it does tread dangerously in those waters. I know for me, watching the production was hard work and the confluence of my viewing and the latest news has broken me down a little.
While it is definitely important to explore subjects that are uncomfortable to us and not to limit our expression, I demand that our artists can do better than what I saw Thursday night. This is not a call for censorship but rather a challenge to all our creators: Make art that is good both aesthetically and morally, don’t shy away from exploring our uncomfortable stories for all of their moral grey areas, and don’t be afraid to condemn our characters for their flaws even as we hold them up for their virtues.
I hope this letter provides you with an opportunity to reflect on the art you want to bring into this world and I look forward to seeing the next years of commissions from the COC. I strongly believe that art shows us who we are and I am hopeful that in the future our portrait will be more humane.
Thank you for reading,
Joseph Glaser, composer, Jew.