Cori Ellison is the Dramaturg for the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere production of Hadrian¸composed by Rufus Wainwright and with libretto by Daniel MacIvor.
Cori Ellison, a leading creative figure in the opera world, was recently appointed staff Dramaturg at Santa Fe Opera, and has previously served in that role at Glyndebourne Festival Opera and New York City Opera. Active in developing contemporary opera, she teaches dramaturgy for American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program and was the first dramaturg invited to participate in the Yale Institute for Music Theatre. At New York City Opera she was a curator of the annual VOX American Opera Showcase and co-founded and led City Opera’s ‘Words First’ program for the development of opera librettists. She is a sought-after developmental dramaturg to numerous composers, librettists, and commissioners, including Glyndebourne, Canadian Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Arizona Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Fort Worth Opera, and Beth Morrison Projects. She has served as production dramaturg for projects including L’incoronazione di Poppea at Cincinnati Opera; Orphic Moments at the Salzburg Landestheater, National Sawdust, and Master Voices; and Aci, Galatea, e Polifemo at National Sawdust, as well as Washington National Opera’s Ring cycle, Opera Boston’s The Nose, and Offenbach!!! at Bard Summerscape. She is a member of the Vocal Arts Faculty at the Juilliard School and the Ravinia Steans Music Institute and has taught and lectured for schools, performance venues, and media outlets worldwide. She creates supertitles for opera companies across the English-speaking world, and helped launch Met Titles, the Met’s simultaneous translation system. Her English singing translations include Hansel and Gretel (NYCO), La vestale (English National Opera) and Shostakovich’s Cherry Tree Towers (Bard Summerscape). She has often written for the New York Times and has contributed to books including The New Grove Dictionary of Opera and The Compleat Mozart.
I welcomed the opportunity to ask Cori a few questions about her role as the Dramaturg in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Hadrian that opens October 13th at the Four Seasons Centre.
barczablog: Thank you for letting me ask you some questions. So to begin: how would you understand the role of dramaturg (or “dramaturge” as some might say it)? Perhaps it’s an immense question.
Cori Ellison: Actually I’m asked that question all of the time. So what I would ask you is, are you specifically talking about a dramaturg in the context of a new opera being developed, or a company dramaturg, or a general production dramaturg?
barczablog: I guess the question is, what is the role you’re playing with the COC in the production of Hadrian?
Cori Ellison: I’ve been engaged to help develop this new opera, work that I frequently do with many opera companies and many opera projects. I work with composers and librettists in developing their new operas and that can start anywhere from the place where the composer and librettist have already been engaged. That’s how I came into the project here with the Canadian Opera Company. And from there, normally the process is that the composer and the librettist come up with the basic story that they want to tell. You may be part of the process of helping them identify the story they want to tell. In the case of Hadrian they were already set on the story of Hadrian. I came in while the libretto was being written.
And what I do is to make sure the libretto is clear and it tells the story in a clear manner, and it provides ample opportunity for lyrical expansion. That is what makes opera opera, when the music can take wing and express emotion, in those moments that are non-narrative. And then when the libretto is more or less set, then the composer will go away and begin to write music. And then we went through a process of a workshop, at Cincinnati Opera’s Opera Fusion program in collaboration with the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. And when you see a new opera in a piano-vocal workshop a lot of things become evident. You help the composer and the librettist make revisions, tighten the piece up, make it clearer. Sometimes you might help in a research capacity, especially in this case where you’re dealing with a story that takes place in ancient Rome. There was a lot of research to be done. That’s a service that a dramaturg can provide.
Also, and this was very important in this particular case, a dramaturg can be instrumental in getting the composer and the librettist on the same page. Composers and librettists, indeed all artists are big personalities, and what makes them great is that they have very particular individual visions. And opera is the most collaborative of art forms. Composer Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor are very different people. They have very different ways of feeling and seeing the story. They even gravitated towards different source material. Rufus’ main inspiration was the Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, which is a work of historical fiction, a rich emotional tapestry. And Daniel, on the other hand, his main source of inspiration was Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome, a history book by Anthony Everitt. And that alone tells you a lot about these two guys and their personalities. So a dramaturg may be someone who will help artists of disparate type see eye to eye, and make sure we’re all writing the same opera, if you will.
barczablog: do you sometimes feel like someone holding up a mirror to them, to show them what they’ve done?
Cori Ellison: Yes, that’s definitely part of it. And sometimes you’re like the marriage counsellor. Also, when the opera was fundamentally finished, then my attention shifted towards being of service to the creative team, the director and the designers, and helping them to understand the piece and the story they wanted to tell, and how they were telling the story, helping them shape the production. And then at that point I began to be of service to the COC administration, also, in introducing them to the piece, which of course is a new piece.
And of course now I’ve been in rehearsals, from the very beginning, and in that case helping the singers find their footing, assisting the director and his team in that respect, and also, helping to shape the piece. It’s still in formation, up until opening night. Trimming and tightening and so on. And so from conception until the birth, a dramaturg can be involved in many different ways.
barczablog: So, different question here. What are the numbers that you think of as your favourites moments?
Cori Ellison: Oh my God that’s so hard to say because I’m so close to it. Well, I very much like Sabina’s Act II aria.
barczablog: So there are arias? This is an opera with arias?
Cori Ellison: Oh, of course! Rufus is a huge opera fan and his favourite is 19th-century romantic opera. Hadrian is like a Romantic grand opera, but written in the 21st century. It employs all of the formal tools of a traditional standard-repertory opera, but infused with Rufus’s very contemporary harmonies, rhythms, and melodies.
barczablog: So what opera would you say it’s closest to, at least superficially? Is it like Samson & Delilah but with a homoerotic love story instead?
Cori Ellison: Well, you could say that, although Rufus’ chief inspirations, both musically and dramaturgically, have been Verdi, Berlioz, and Wagner. Those are the operas that he knows really well and loves.
barczablog: Does it remind you of Aida perhaps?
Cori Ellison: In the sense that it reminds me of late-middle Verdi, because there’s an intimate love story at its heart which is set against a larger political landscape, which is what you get in Don Carlo or Aida. It’s very much a Verdian model.
barczablog: May I ask you a question about the erotic content? There’s a kind of disclaimer on the website cautioning people:
“Content advisory: Hadrian contains nudity and scenes of a sexual nature. The opera is recommended for audiences 18 or older.”
Can you compare it to what’s gone before? Salome was banned initially. Is it in any way risqué, or even forbidden in what it shows?
Cori Ellison:: It is the most romantic and tasteful opera and production, I think, that could possibly have been done. And you treat a gay love story the same way as you treat a heterosexual love story in, say, a Verdi opera. I think it’s the kind of idealized love you find at the heart of Les Troyens with Dido and Aeneas. There is one love scene between Hadrian and Antinous at the beginning of the Third Act, which is a very beautiful idealized scene, both musically and in the way it’s staged. Tender and romantic. I don’t expect people to get bent out of shape about it, because it’s beautiful and it’s tasteful. If you come to the opera knowing what the story is, it’s not going to be shocking to you.
barczablog: I hope the COC has been very canny in programming this, because I think there’s an audience for this. It’s overdue in some ways.
Cori Ellison: You mean there’s an audience for new opera? I don’t think it’s ghettoized, or for a particular constituency. Hadrian is an opera for opera lovers.
barczablog: I just hope that in this day and age, it doesn’t matter that the love story is between two men.
Cori Ellison: Well, it shouldn’t because as I said before, if people buy tickets, they know they’re coming to see a love story between two men. If they decided to come see it, I don’t know why they would get upset by it.
barczablog: So… different kind of question. Did you find that the writing gives opportunities for virtuoso singing? For singers to show off?
Cori Ellison: Absolutely. It does. That’s something Rufus enjoys very much in opera.
barczablog: Something to be excited about! That’s wonderful.
So would you say Rufus Wainwright’s music resembles any composer you’d care to name?
Cori Ellison: Resembles? He has certain reference points. People may hear echoes of Wagner, of Berlioz, of Verdi, of various 19th-century Romantic opera composers: although the music is 100% Rufus’s. The harmonies are the type of harmonies you’ll find in his popular music. The melodies are completely his own. It’s tonal, it’s beautiful, it’s full of character and full of colour. There are influences, yes, but the music is entirely his own.
barczablog: Does he make any inter-textual references: you know, like where he might quote another composer? I guess it’s not a common thing to do.
Cori Ellison: I would say no to that.
barczablog: Could I ask you for a quick synopsis of the plot?
Cori Ellison: Sure. It begins as Hadrian is ill and in the process of dying. He is still mourning the death of his lover Antinous, which happened seven years before the beginning of the opera, and he’s having trouble letting go of that grief. One of the reasons he’s having trouble is that the death of Antinous was surrounded in mystery. He drowned in the Nile. But nobody knows whether he sacrificed himself, committed suicide, whether he was murdered, whether it was an accident. Nobody knows this. And it’s something that absolutely torments Hadrian.
So Hadrian is visited by the ghosts of the previous Emperor, Trajan, his step-father, and Empress, Plotina. They try to make a bargain with him. They will reveal to him how Antinous died if he will fulfil a task for them, which is to ensure their immortality as gods by ensuring the preservation of the Empire: because the custom is when Roman Emperors die, they became revered as gods and this is something that Plotina is very interested in. She really really doesn’t want to be forgotten. So they make this bargain that the cause of Antinous’ death will be revealed to Hadrian, if he will preserve the Roman Empire by putting down a rebellion of the Jews and the Nazarenes. This is the age of early Christianity, and the new sects are rising and threatening the Roman Empire. And Plotina and Trajan call upon Hadrian to quell this rebellion of the Jews and the Nazarenes. Then we’re shown in flashback the meeting of Antinous and Hadrian and their falling in love and some of their life together. And we’re shown the manner of Antinous’ death and we see Hadrian learn it. And so Hadrian gains a lot of insight as a result, but I’m not going to give you a spoiler and tell how it ends!
barczablog: Sure! So there are these two large-scale plot elements. There’s his discovery about the past, and the bargain with the ghosts that he will do, as part of the politics of the time.
Cori Ellison: Right. It’s that Verdian framework, of the love story set against the larger political story.
barczablog: Interesting… So may I ask… You wear a number of hats. I wonder if you were to advise the readers of my blog. For a young composer or young librettist, is there anything you’d advise them to do, if they want to advance the art form of opera? What would you tell them to do?
Cori Ellison:… Well… I teach composers and librettists at American Lyric Theatre in New York, which is a fellowship training program for emerging composers and librettists. And what I teach them, and what I advise all emerging composers and librettists, is to look to the heritage of opera. There’s no better teacher than Mozart or Verdi. You need to know the heritage of opera, you need to know how an opera walks and talks. It’s not that you have to write conservative old-fashioned operas. It’s like if you’re going to be a doctor you need to study skeletons, you know what I mean? You need to study the human body and how it works.
Some upcoming composers and librettists think they’re going to reinvent the wheel. You can’t write an opera without understanding what an opera is. True, the definition of what an opera is has expanded, absolutely exponentially. But you still have to understand it, what a creature it is.
barczablog: So what is your favourite opera, if there is one?
Cori Ellison: Oh my gosh, that’s so difficult. Mozart is my number one guy. Verdi would be close second. But Mozart is my favourite. And it’s so hard to choose a favourite Mozart opera because they’re all such masterpieces. But if I have a gun to my head I would have to say Cosi fan tutte.
barczablog: Ha… not surprised. But we sometimes admire works that are imperfect. Is there an imperfect work that you admire?
Cori Ellison… Oh yes, absolutely. The number one thing I have to say about that is Verdi’s Don Carlo. It may sound like sacrilege to suggest it’s imperfect, but the very fact that it exists in so many editions, so when you go to put on a production of Don Carlo you have to make loads and loads of choices.
barczablog: Do you prefer five acts or four, and in French? Are you a five-act purist in French?
Cori Ellison: Well the five- act version in French is absolutely revelatory because that’s the original. But I love the five-act Italian version as well. It’s the most beautiful opera, though it can be a little ungainly. And then of course Verdi’s next opera is Aida, which is a well-oiled machine. Verdi solved all of the problems of Don Carlo in Aida. But to me it’s not nearly as moving. I have a great, great love for Don Carlo.
barczablog: So one last question. Is there a teacher or an influence that you would care to name that you want to thank or to admire?
Cori: Oh my gosh. That’s really difficult. There are a handful. I would mention Gerard Mortier, who was a relatively recent mentor. His way of looking at opera was a huge influence on me. He also gave me such a vote of confidence that it allowed me to grow even more.
There are other influences. An early voice teacher, Herbert Beattie, who showed me the difference between being a singer and being an artist.
But there are more. Frederick Noonan, who ran Great Performers at Lincoln Center and the Mostly Mozart Festival for many years, and who helped me immeasurably early in my career. And teacher and conductor named Cynthia Auerbach who worked at New York City Opera, and Beverly Sills and Julius Rudel, my New York City Opera godparents, if you will. So I keep very busy trying to pay it forward.
barczablog: Thank you so much for doing this!
The new opera Hadrian composed by Rufus Wainwright, with libretto by Daniel MacIvor, premieres October 13th at the Four Seasons Centre in a Canadian Opera Company Production. For further information and tickets click here.