THE long-awaited opera by Rufus Wainwright about Antinous and Hadrian will feature the first-ever on-stage sex scene in the history of opera.
And it will be a gay sex scene that audiences see when the curtain goes up this weekend on the world premiere of the Canadian Opera Company production.
The opera by Wainright and Daniel McIvor, entitled HADRIAN, which explores the relationship between Roman Emperor Hadrian and the young Antinous, will run October 13–27 at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre.
Peter Hinton will direct a cast that includes Thomas Hampson as Hadrian and renowned tenor Isaiah Bell as Antinous, with Karita Mattila as Plotina.
Over four acts and three locations ... Hadrian’s villa, Greece, and Egypt ... the opera "is a surreal romp through time and space, mixing true occurrences with complete fabrication in order to illustrate a vivid 'creative snapshot' of what the end of the Classical era may have felt like," Wainwright says.
It opens on the last night of Hadrian's life in 138 AD. He wants to know the truth about Antinous' mysterious death eight years earlier in October of the year 130 AD.
Was it an accident? Or murder? The plot twists, political deals are struck amidst power struggles, deceptions, and visiting ghosts. And then it ends where it started.
But not before a love scene: "I realized that there are no sex scenes written into opera," Wainwright tells The New York Times, "let alone anal sex scenes. I think for some people it will be powerful to see gay love represented in the larger-than-life fashion that only opera can provide," he adds.
"When I first read the fabulous "Memoirs of Hadrian" by Marguerite Yourcenar, a novel which inspired at least three generations of gay men, I was instantly struck with the idea of transforming this historical subject into operatic form," Wainwright says.
Hadrian was a master builder, the legacy of which we still marvel over today.
"But he is mostly unknown for what might be his greatest legacy, his having lived openly as a homosexual and his deep, unshakable love for another man, Antinous," the opera's librettist Daniel MacIvor writes.
"Homoerotic relationships were acceptable within the Roman nobility at the time .... Antinous was treated by Hadrian as an equal partner in their love."
They were together for six years before Antinous' mysterious drowning in the Nile while travelling on a barge with the Emperor in Egypt.
Hadrian was so heartbroken that he deified Antinous and built close to 30 temples around the empire to honour him.
There were also thousands of sculptures depicting his young, beautiful lover. About 115 survive today ... including at least 20 found at Hadrian's villa, where some think Antinous might be entombed.
Here is a sneak preview of the opera's musical score: