Commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company.

See also: Hadrian - One hour version

  • 2+pic.2+ca.3(III:bcl).3(III:cbn)/4.3.2+btbn.1/timp.5perc/pf.2hp/str
  • SATB
  • Boy Soprano, Soprano, Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, Tenor, Tenor, Tenor, Tenor, Baritone, Bass Baritone, Bass, Bass
  • 2 hr 40 min
  • Daniel MacIvor, libretto; Cori Ellison, dramaturg

Programme Note

Brief Synopsis

Emperor Hadrian is devastated after his lover Antinous drowns in the Nile River. While matters of state encroach on his grief, and advisors clamour for war against a radical new threat to the Empire, Hadrian slips out of time to re-encounter the vision and reality of Antinous—and learn the truth about what happened on the Nile.

A Note from the Composer

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. Both its intimate nature and wild grandeur seemed perfectly suited for what opera does best: creating a hyper-illustration of the dark inner lives of people up against formidable outer circumstances while at the same time musically careening through the surreal dimensions of what lies in between. In my opinion, no other theatrical form truly refracts life into myriad vibrantly bright colors as much as opera does and the tale of the Roman emperor Hadrian is a diamond perfectly cut for such a task.

In this new piece, I continue to follow my sincere love of long melodic lines mixed with rich orchestral textures, a pattern begun in my first opera Prima Donna. But whereas the rainbow refraction is occurring, it’s through a much darker and harsher lens. This story unfolds amidst the upper echelons of a brutal militaristic state and involves historical facts wrapped up in total speculation and surrounded by the supernatural. My Hadrian is a surreal romp through time and space, mixing true occurrences with complete fabrication in order to illustrate a vivid “creative snap shot” of the classical era.

The opera focuses on the emperor’s true but problematic love of the beautiful male youth Antinous. All the while, the dark specter of monotheism rises in the distance, heralded by the Jews and early Christians, which would ultimately destroy the lovers’ ancient pagan belief system. Historical research shows how huge tracts of Hadrian’s life and legacy were purposefully destroyed by vicious detractors – a tremendous tragedy, since judging by surviving accounts, he was a productive and just ruler. This, of course, is heavily complicated by his massacre of Jews, which cannot be forgotten, and is a major focal point of the opera, the results of which we are still confronting today.

His stabilizing of the Empire; his focus on philosophy, arts and architecture; his emphasis on diplomacy instead of brute force; and eventually his successful transfer of power. These achievements, as well as the dark stain of the massacre, would be better known and more deeply understood had it not been for Hadrian’s overt homosexuality. Almost immediately after Hadrian’s death, the patriarchal dictates of mankind took over the narrative, leaving the pathetic ancient observation that he “wept like a woman” when Antinous drowned to overshadow all his accomplishments.

I continue to explore the fascinating ideas which swirl around the subject of my second opera. But I am a composer, and therefore my armchair intellectual reach should be superseded by the music – music that I hope you enjoy.

Rufus Wainwright - January 4, 2018



The last night of Hadrian’s life. In Tibur, outside Rome.

Hadrian is gravely ill and grieving the death of his lover Antinous. After a year of preparations, Antinous’ body is to be entombed. Hadrian’s entourage feels Hadrian will die tonight, from either sickness or sadness. Hadrian is visited by two deities only he can see: Emperor Trajan and his wife Plotina. Trajan, like a father to him, is here to comfort Hadrian. Plotina, having secured Hadrian the throne, is on a mission. Hadrian only wants to know the truth of what happened to Antinous.

Convinced he is mad with grief, Hadrian orders his physician Hermogenes to kill him. Turbo, his long-time friend and head of his military, tries to reason with Hadrian. Hermogenes’ loyalty to his Emperor brings him to kill himself. Plotina and Trajan return. Plotina begins her campaign. Turbo addresses affairs of state: enemies of the status quo rise in power. This is of no concern to Hadrian; he’s busy memorializing Antinous. Knowing that time is short, Plotina strikes a deal: two nights with Antinous and the truth if Hadrian signs a document that would destroy those who would destroy them. Hadrian agrees.


Seven years earlier, in Greece.

Plotina leads Hadrian through the night he met Antinous: the feast of Robigalia, celebrated tonight to honour Hadrian’s tour of the Empire. Guests sing Hadrian’s praises. We meet Hadrian’s wife Sabina. Her sadness reveals itself: her husband has no heart for her. Present is Antinous, who was magnificent in the hunt today, killing a boar that was charging the Emperor. Preparations begin for a ceremonial sacrifice. Hadrian insists Turbo bring forward the hero of the hunt; Turbo is reluctant, concerned about the Emperor’s tastes.

Hadrian longs to take Antinous in his arms, but knows the night must play out just as it did. We see their attraction is deep and true. For Hadrian’s amusement, a Sibyl has been procured. She predicts that Antinous will “sacrifice” and become a “saviour.” Hadrian turns his attention back to the celebration. A sacrifice is brought to the altar, small groups form. Hadrian and Antinous have found their destiny. Turbo and Sabina have found a common enemy in Antinous. The entourage considers political implications. The people gossip.

Plotina reveals herself to us: she had been the Sibyl.


Egypt. A barge on the Nile.

In a world between worlds, Hadrian and Antinous’ love expresses itself as all consuming. It is six years since the night Hadrian and Antinous met. Over time Antinous has shown himself to be a wise and gentle man. Hadrian recognizes this night as the night Antinous died.

Unable to escape his real-world illness, and facing the worst night of his life, Hadrian begs Plotina to change the rules. She refuses. The entourage, sick of life on the road, amuse themselves with drinking games. When Antinous appears we see that he has captured their hearts. Antinous has a peaceable approach to the Jews and Nazarenes. Turbo sees this as supporting the power of monotheism. He worries that Hadrian is too influenced by Antinous.

Sabina is tormented by her husband’s love for Antinous. She and Turbo speak of a plan: a deception is to be undertaken by a Sybil. Sabina is unsure, Turbo is determined. The bedchamber. Antinous cares for Hadrian. A Sybil comes to help with Hadrian’s illness. She declares that Hadrian’s recovery requires a sacrifice. Hadrian briefly steps into the world between. He sees that the Sibyl is Sabina. Back in the fever dream of the past Antinous cares for Hadrian tenderly. Sabina witnesses Hadrian’s love for Antinous. Her husband has a heart. She is moved.

On deck we see that Antinous trusts the Sibyl’s words. He is about to sacrifice himself. Sabina rushes in to end the game. Turbo shows himself and has Sabina taken away. Alone with Antinous, Turbo admits the deception then kills Antinous, delivering his body to the Nile.


Tibur, outside Rome. Hadrian’s last moments.

Back in the real world. Hadrian, now more broken than he was, makes a show of signing the document, thus ending Judea. Plotina is elated, monotheism will die. She will live eternal. Turbo is delighted, Hadrian is himself again, the Empire will thrive. Hadrian explains this document will see the Empire fall. Then he tells Turbo what he knows: Turbo killed Antinous. Turbo admits it with no remorse. Hadrian moves to stab Turbo in the heart, but stops, he asks “Why?”

Turbo explains he was protecting the legacy of his friend and Emperor. Hadrian disdains all material concerns naming his own legacy in his final words, “He loved.” In this moment Turbo sees the truth. Hadrian dies. All deities present lead Hadrian into death. Hadrian and Antinous are reunited. The gods ponder their future as a dark chorus of unrest gathers. A time has ended. A time has begun.

Daniel MacIvor, librettist



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