Canadian Opera Company general director Alexander Neef announced yesterday that Rufus Wainwright will compose a new work for the 2018–2019 season. Almost immediately, social media — the virtual water cooler of our generation — erupted with mixed criticism and praise. To help understand the reaction, we’ve collected arguments from both sides, asking Neef for the pros list.
Alexander Neef’s 5 reasons why Wainwright is a brilliant choice to write Canada's next great opera
1. He really wants to
Neef acknowledges that there are several people in Canada who want to write a mainstage opera for the COC. The distinction, he argues, is that there are a smaller number of people who have a story to tell. Wainwright has brought all the proper elements together, and after three years of exchanging ideas, Neef feels that Wainright is fully prepared to tackle the project.
2. He has a story to tell
Narrative is very important for Wainwright. A plot has several complex elements, including the storyline and deeper layers of meaning. A successful opera story is one that the audience can project themselves into and feel emotionally connected. Neef believes Wainwright has this with Hadrian, the story of the 2nd-century ancient Roman emperor.
3. He understands the voice and writing for it
Although Wainwright is known primarily as a singer-songwriter, Neef points out that his songwriting is very different from his operatic writing. Wainwright’s ability to write for trained voice impressed the COC general director, who calls it, "definitely not singer-songwriter."
4. He has a great librettist
On Wainwright’s first opera, Prima Donna, The New York Times quipped, "no one has seen fit to give it a plot." Not this time. Notable playwright Daniel MacIvor will write the words for Wainwright’s music. He brings what Neef calls "dramatic expertise" to the project. MacIvor is a crucial part of this project, and when he joined it just this past summer, the last cornerstone was filled.
5. He appeals to existing audiences, but expands on it, too
Neef laments that you never know which projects will attract the public. In order for a mainstage production to be successful, it must be performed at least seven times, and a minimum of 14,000 tickets must be sold. You can’t get that by catering to just one age group. It’s been three years of exchanging ideas with Wainwright, and now Neef is ready to commit to the project that he is confident will be a success for the company.
5 reasons why Rufus Wainwright’s new opera is controversial
1. His other opera wasn’t a hit with critics
The New York Times called Wainwright’s first opera, Prima Donna, a "mystifying failure." The Guardian gave it one out of five stars. The Independent called it "at best banal, at worst, boring." In the end, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which first commissioned the work, ultimately refused to perform it, citing disagreements with the composer.
2. He's an operatic outsider
Despite Prima Donna, Wainwright is first and foremost a singer-songwriter. Many have expressed concern that Neef looked past the long list of capable Canadian composers in favour of a splashy celebrity.
3. New librettist on the block
MacIvor is a previous Governor General Literary Award winner and established as one of Canada’s most respected playwrights. He knows the stage, but this will be his first time writing for the opera house.
4. The price tag
The Globe and Mail reports that a new production could cost up to $2 million. There are little expectations for this opera to be a major money-maker for the company.
5. Ambitious subject matter
The 2nd-century story of the Roman Emperor Hadrian is a complex and emotional tale to fit onto the stage. The librettist will need to find a way to make sense of the large cast, various settings, love story and required history lesson. If MacIvor pulls it off, this opera will be a modern masterpiece. If not, the COC may regret its controversial gamble.