Robert Mapplethorpe’s work is singular within the history of photography. He has opened up the medium to vastly new subjects and territories, while at the same time creating some of the most iconic and classical images in photography. Mapplethorpe almost entirely dedicated his career to photography and was a major driving force in elevating photography to the same status as the classical art forms of sculpture or painting. He was a trailblazer, a perfectionist, and in his approach to lighting and composition, a classicist. Mapplethorpe’s portraits, nudes and flowers express the fundamental emotional states of our human existence, from love to hatred and joy to pain, seen through an unapologetic homosexual lens. The classical materials of marble and paint to describe the human form are replaced in his photos by skin and leather
For the performance at TivoliVredenburg, Mapplethorpe’s images will form the visual backdrop to concert performances of an abridged version of Rufus Wainwright’s opera, Hadrian. At first glance, the world of opera, the world of Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian and the world of Mapplethorpe’s photography seem ages and aesthetics apart. But upon closer look, the crossroads between them, the connections of their themes, the subversion of classical forms through injection of a different form of sexuality, become evident. Wainwright’s Hadrian reshuffles the traditional love triangle of opera where the tenor loves the soprano and the baritone tries to prevent it. In Hadrian, the baritone loves the tenor and the soprano tries to prevent it. The rest of the form of the opera follows the form of the Grand Opera with its four acts, a large dance number in act 2, the great love duet in act 3 and the tragic death of the hero Hadrian in act 4 (which we sadly will not hear in this version), chorus, ensemble scenes and arias. All great operas are about great love stories, from Carmen and Jose to Tristan and Isolde. Hadrian is no different.
Neither Mapplethorpe nor Wainwright try to hide in any shape or form, the homosexuality from their work. They both approach it head on, without shame, without reservation, and therefore upon deeper inspection, their work goes way beyond the controversy it might stir at the surface towards the core of what brings humans together.
The images on display in this exhibition are a selection of the ones that were chosen to accompany the live performances. The photographs of people correspond with the main characters in the opera. In this setting, each image of a person is juxtaposed with a flower image. Mapplethorpe’s flowers have anthropomorphic qualities. Flower stems embrace each other like lovers, they tilt their head towards each other like admirers yearning to be united, or they get hurt and injured like people facing severe tragedies.
Looking at the drama that lies in Mapplethorpe’s pictures of people and flowers, it is obvious how subtly and powerfully they are able to accompany the story of an emperor who could have everything, just not the one thing he really desired. An emperor who realized that his only legacy lied in the fact that he loved. Once he did, he was ready to die.
Mapplethorpe said that when he was behind the camera he forgot that he existed. Love is forgetting the pain of existence.
Iris and Zinnia, 1984
Self Portrait, 1988
Rose with Smoke, 1985
Lisa Lyon, 1982
Phyllis Tweel, 1979
Calla Lilies, 1983
Calla Lily, 1988
White Gauze, 1984
Ken Moody, 1984
Frank Diaz, 1980
Baby’s Breath, 1982
Sleeping Cupid, 1989
A Thought on Singing by Rufus Wainwright
Recently I was reading poems by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa and stumbled upon what is now probably my favorite quote on singing:
“Sing like you are listening”
Previously my favorite quote had been the more well known “what comes from the heart goes to the heart” by Samuel Coleridge, and though it’s a line that I still adore and find useful concerning a plethora of issues, Pessoa’s illustration actually pinpoints an exercise I have been somewhat unconsciously perfecting for many years, and if perhaps given this poetic pointer a little earlier, could have cut some corners.
Speaking of cut, often when I hear people sing today (especially in the musical theater style) I’m struck by how cut off the sound is from the actual performer. There seems to be a lot of technical expertise developed that I imagine allows the artist to sustain power and do 8 shows a week, which makes sense, but in the end tends to leave me somewhat cold. Listening while singing in my opinion would help a lot with this.
Of course, training is essential, and when I say “training” I’m not speaking necessarily of classical training (which I’m not against either, especially for opera) but to be a true interpreter of song, a substantial amount of work is required. But now, as distilled in Pessoa’s line “sing like you are listening”, I feel a lot of this work should be perfected by the ear, not only the voice.
Fortunately, I was brought up in a folk music setting and was forced to pay attention to other musicians around me, so I’ve always had the tools. But far too much time in my early years I now feel was spent trying to perfect my own singular style or have a deep emotional relationship with the music. All of this is well and good, but if the goal had been to actually give myself over totally and become a complete empathetic listener while in the act of performing, I feel I would have progressed faster, and thankfully now, I’m starting to get the gist of it.
In the end I’m realizing that it has to be completely holistic: not only is it listening to the acoustics of the room, other performers and what the composer is trying to express, on a more spiritual note (pardon the pun), it’s almost as if you should try to become the silent response to the audience when you sing, the truly thoughtful answer that actually pops into one’s mind after properly digesting another person’s plight, or on the other end of the spectrum, your gut feeling. Essentially the REAL answer, unfortunately rarely said out loud.
Thankfully, with music you can pronounce the real answer out loud much more easily, plus miraculously, it takes a fraction of the time than when speaking it.
So, in the end, as a singer, I guess think of a performance as a conversation between you and the audience, a not unheard-of construct, but here’s the twist: even though the public is quiet and listening intently, you the performer should actually take on the role of primary listener and try to hear THEIR thoughts. Listen for their hopes, dreams and fears (I don’t know how this works, but trust me, it happens if you really try), and with this intent in place, I guarantee that the music you make will be far deeper and more connected to who you are, not cold and mechanical.
Great singing should be a truthful and loving honest answer to all those who need it, and that’s all of us.
Sing like you are listening.
Pop singer Rufus Wainwright can definitively join the division of contemporary opera composers with his opera Hadrian. The first part of this concert is a shortened version of Hadrian, an opera in 4 acts by Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor. It contains scenes from the first three acts of the opera that deal with the death of Antinous at the end of Act 3. Expect an orchestra with 5 soloists, supported with beautiful images by Robert Mapplethorpe. In the second half Rufus Wainwright plays orchestrated songs from his own repertoire. He will also do some collaborations with the soloists and musicians from the first half before the break.
Hadrian is Rufus Wainwright’s second opera. The work tells the story of the Roman emperor Hadrian and focuses on his dramatic love affair with the young man Antinous. According to Wainwright, the story about openly gay love against the backdrop of the political climate has many parallels with ‘how we live today’.
Praised by the New York Times for his “genuine originality,” Rufus Wainwright has established himself as one of the great male vocalists, songwriters, and composers of his generation. The New York-born, Montreal-raised singer-songwriter has released ten studio albums to date, three DVDs, and three live albums including the Grammy-nominated Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall. He has written two operas and contributed numerous songs for movies and TV including Brokeback Mountain, Moulin Rouge and Shrek, and is currently working on his first musical for the West End with Ivo van Hove and a Requiem. To celebrate his 50th birthday he released the GRAMMY® nominated “Folkocracy, a studio album of folk songs and duets featuring among others Chaka Khan, Brandi Carlile, John Legend and Anohni in the summer of 2023.
Clark Rundell conductor
Rufus Wainwright composition, vocals
Davóne Tines Hadrian
Denzil Delaere Antinous
Christian Federici Turbo
Katrien Baerts Sabina
Iris van Wijnen Plotina
Robert Mapplethorpe images
Daniel MacIvor libretto
Jorn Weisbrodt concept and design
A few years ago I performed in Sevilla. The Canadian Opera Company had already commissioned me to write Hadrian and I realized that Italica, the place where Hadrian was born was just around the corner so Jorn Weisbrodt and I planned a day trip. Of course like in any ancient Roman settlement there is an ancient amphitheater there and we spoke with the director of the site about the idea to maybe perform Hadrian one day there.
It has not happened yet nor am I quite sure it would even work as the orchestral and musical forces are quite large, but who knows…. One does not ever have to stop dreaming.
13-17 March during opening times @ foyer TivoliVredenburg
Rufus Wainwright turned the last line that Hadrian sings in Rufus’ opera Hadrian into the folk song He Loved. The song has not been released yet. The track features Lucy Wainwright Roche and Petra Haden on backing vocals. He Loved can only be heard via two headphone sets during the festival days as part of the complete Birds of Paradise Artist Rooms exhibition (13-17 March) at the foyer in TivoliVredenburg.