2 min

Mythic yearning

Hans Werner Henze's life & music

TUMULT. Venus And Adonis promises to be a visceral telling of the violence and ecstasy born of love and lust. Credit: Xtra files

Canadian Opera Company General Director Richard Bradshaw says that Venus And Adonis “is one hour and 10 minutes of the most intense music I’ve ever experienced; it packs a punch and hits you in the gut.”

Venus And Adonis premiered in Munich in 1997, when composer Hans Werner Henze was 71; Bradshaw conducted the lauded North American premiere in Santa Fe last summer and is eager to see how it will be received in Toronto.

He calls Henze, “a towering figure in Europe, probably the most celebrated living composer, yet, for reasons beyond my understanding, he’s virtually unknown in North America.”

He’s worth knowing; Henze’s autobiography Bohemian Fifths is fascinating.

Born in Germany (Westphalia) in 1926, Henze grows up watching with horror at the Nazification of his father; during that same period, Henze figures out he’s gay.

In one chilling section, Henze writes how, as a teenager, though leading what he describes as a discreet, innocent and solitary existence, his father confronts him saying, as Henze writes “‘That people like me’ belonged in concentration camps.”

Henze would survive his father (who died on the Eastern front) conscription, a prisoner of war camp, the social and ideological upheavals of post-war Europe and a tempestuous relationship with his life’s work. Among his many collaborators are poet WH Auden, directors Luchino Visconti and Paolo Pasolini and choreographer William Ashton. (Henze’s music is also featured in the ballet film Billy Elliot.)

His latest opera, Venus And Adonis, is a fierce psychological love triangle involving three opera singers – the Prima Dona (sung by Susan Marie Pierson), a nameless baritone (Timothy Noble), and the tenor, Clemente (Alan Woodrow).

The trio have been hired to sing the dance songs in a ballet, and the explosive dynamics among them are paralleled and commented upon by three dancers – Venus (Carolyn Woods), Adonis (Jay Gower Glover) and Mars (Robert Glumbeck). It isn’t giving away too much to say that someone ends up getting torn limb from limb by a wild boar.

For this COC production, Serge Benathan, artistic director of Toronto’s Dancemakers, takes up the choreographic duties. (Benathan also directs the adaptation of John Blow’s 17-century masque Venus And Adonis, which precedes Henze’s opera.)

Increasing the layers of musical complexity, Henze divvies up the orchestra into three different sounding sections, each associated with one of the singers, as are a number of madrigal singers and percussionists.

“I wont’ kid you,” says Bradshaw. “It’s not the most accessible music; it’s very layered, dense and complex.

“It’s definitely worth more than one listen… Don’t go into it expecting fact and reason, just experience it; reason will come.

“It’s an assault on the senses, it batters you. But it is also a seduction. Out of the craggy landscapes emerge many beautiful and tender moments that you hold on to.”

Music was a refuge that never supplies Henze with easy answers. In his autobiography, he repeatedly beats himself up over his self-perceived ideological and artistic failings and an over-emphasis on artistic creation to the detriment of living his life.

Bradshaw views Venus And Adonis as a “summation of Henze’s amazing life,” and that towards the end of the opera, he feels the elder Henze has finally allowed himself a moment of peace. Bradshaw describes this “golden moment,” when Adonis is transformed into a celestial being, as “beautiful, weightless music of shimmering clarity.”

The opera is not just for effetes who have seen it all, quite the opposite, in Bradshaw’s opinion. “I’d go so far as to say that it’s for anyone who hasn’t seen an opera, or have gone to the opera and not liked it.

“Venus And Adonis will challenge all your expectations of what opera is.”

Venus And Adonis.


Fri, Jan 19, 23, 25, 28, 31.

Hummingbird Centre.

1 Front St E.

(416) 872-2262.