Celebrated writer Daniel MacIvor has penned countless plays, a handful of films and a few TV scripts. But the Canadian Opera Company’s 2018/19 season will see him take his first stab at opera, writing the libretto for Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian. Set around the year 130 CE, the work tells the fairly unknown story of a gay affair between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and Antinous, a Greek youth who was part of his entourage. The pair had a seven-year relationship (much to the chagrin of those around them) before Antinous died suspiciously by drowning in the Nile while the group was touring Egypt.
MacIvor first got word of the project last June, while on retreat deep in the woodlands of rural Nova Scotia. Atom Egoyan had suggested him as a possible writer for the piece and put him in touch with the team.
“At first I thought no,” MacIvor says. “I’d seen Peter Sellars’s The Marriage of Figaro in Barcelona years ago and found the audience terrifying. They actually booed the set! But once I read the source material I became very intrigued. It’s a big sexy opera-scale story. I was particularly interested in why this isn’t one of the great historical love stories, à la Antony and Cleopatra, and that became a big part of what I wanted to explore with the work.”
The first step was to meet with Wainwright to see if they clicked creatively. They’d been introduced at a Hole concert years ago (“That was back in my bad old days, so it’s all rather vague,” MacIvor jokes) but needed to find out if they shared anything besides a love of mid-1990s chick rock. They spent a weekend together at Wainwright’s New York State home, dabbling in music and lyrics, and quickly discovered they were on the same page.
“Rufus is, on some level, made of opera, and he is so incredibly comfortable in that world,” MacIvor says. “His music has such emotional fullness to it. When I look back at his work that I’ve listened to over the years, the arrangements and builds are very operatic. This project is something he’s had in his head for a long time, so it was important that I could honour his conception but still have some space for me to make it my own.”
MacIvor’s trademark theatrical style is often marked by a semi-autobiographical or at least deeply personal approach to his characters; in-depth research isn’t typically a major feature of his process. But since Hadrian is based on a true story, the project required him to hit the books.
“This is the first time I’m doing full-on research at this level, and I’m actually loving it,” he says. “History shows us that little has changed, which is both comforting and horrifying. We’ve been very clear that we didn’t want to let historical fact get in the way of telling the best possible story, so that’s a relief on some level. But we want to be as authentic to the tone of the times and of the relationship as possible, so that means understanding things in the deeper way.”
The process is barely underway, as the project won’t have its premiere for more than four years. But so far, MacIvor’s found working in a new genre to be eye-opening.
“Before I actually started writing, I would have said opera was totally foreign,” he says. “Now it seems almost weirdly familiar. Writing a libretto brings forward all the stuff I’ve been working on in my plays in the last few years, like Arigato, Tokyo, around economy of language but in an even more direct way. In a libretto you have to leave a lot more space for all of the other action.”
“I’m learning that I love the kind of intensity that opera offers me as a writer,” he says. “I guess I’m also learning that I like opera.”