NERON KAISAR is unique to the operatic literature, in both its premise and in our treatment of it. While the events recounted are faithfully historical, our artistic focus is on the emperor Nero’s sub-career and psychological orientation as a singer and kitharode. Much of the text is drawn verbatim from famous passages of ancient lyric poetry, mostly Greek, but some Latin too, with interstitial/situational dialogue in English. The English translations of all Greek and Latin texts are themselves poetic and artistic, informed by the librettist’s close familiarity with the sources. The music makes use of traditional operatic forms that are cast in both classical and more modern musical languages.
Just as the libretto moves from English to Latin, to Greek, to English, and from prose to poetry, the music responds: There are, for example, prose-like passages of recitative for sung dialogues and interchanges among characters, while the poetic set-pieces are composed using vocally-extended forms like classic aria to convey the heightened emotions. When characters quote ancient Greek poetry, the musical style deliberately steps back in time to a less ornate musical surface and to a more direct harmonic language. The music for Nero himself is always self-consciously “overwrought,” as it were, as befits a character who approached life as a work of art—indeed, as if it were an opera.
In Nero’s day poems by, e.g., Sappho, Anacreon, Alcaeus, Archilochus, Hesiod, etc. were already established “classics,” and Nero’s ambition—which extended far beyond any ambitions he may have had as emperor—was to be an accomplished performer of this repertoire. The scoring for two harps in this piece provides a musical corollary to the lyre or kithara that would have been Nero’s primary instrument. The idea of musical competition (an activity on which both Greeks and Romans were very keen) is expressed throughout the work in the arguments/dialogue exchanged between characters. One scene consists of an actual musical competition between Nero and various soloists who emerge from the chorus to vie with him. Indeed, the glories and pitfalls of poetic and musical ambition is one of this opera’s overarching themes, the purpose of which is to intentionally evoke (and innovate on) a long-established trope from the musical canon (e.g., Bach’s Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan; Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Strauss’s Cappricio). An important secondary purpose in our thematic focus is to provide oblique, ironic commentary on our own culture’s obsession with pop celebrity, as seen, for example, in the proliferation of “American Idol”-type television programs.
Another aspect of Nero’s career that we naturally wish to capture, however, are the tragic consequences of the emperor’s life choices—i.e., the poisoning of his step-brother, and potential rival to the throne, Britannicus; the spectacular murder of, and incestuous relationship with, his mother Agrippina; the divorce, banishment and execution of his first wife Octavia; his infatuation with Poppaea Sabina, who became his second wife, then his kicking of her to death while she was pregnant; the sorry fate of Nero’s castrated boy-lover, Sporus, whom Nero later “married” because he reminded him of Poppaea; the scapegoating of Christians after the Great Fire at Rome; the military campaigns in Judaea and Nero’s manipulation of messianic expectations there; the forced suicide of Seneca, his tutor and advisor; Nero’s own desperate last moments and inglorious suicide at his freedman’s villa, and, finally, the apocalyptic legend of his return from the dead.
Ultimately, however, this work paints Nero as a flamboyant Liberace-like character: someone not perfectly aware of his surroundings or of appropriate boundaries, not quite in control of his desires and fantasies, wanting more than anything to be a celebrated entertainer and performer, and, while fairly accomplished in that vein, not possessing the true talent of an original poet; someone whose libidinous self-indulgence harms those who inhabit the world around him. There is also a strong element in the piece of Oscar Wilde’s dictum that life imitates art. That the characters often sing contextually appropriate “classics” to one another is one expression of this idea. But in a very real way, too, as far as the historical Nero is concerned, life and art did in fact become tragically intertwined, and the opera has scenes where Nero plays two of his favorite stage roles that correspond to events in his own life and reign—the incestuous Oedipus, for example, and the matricide Orestes.
Even Nero’s last words are a bathetic farrago of snippets from the poetic canon, distant echoes of lost Greek tragedies. When, for example, unable to muster the courage to commit suicide and finding no one in his entourage who was willing to dispatch him, Nero exclaimed, “What, have I neither friend nor foe?” And then, speaking to himself in Greek, “This is not becoming to Nero,” and, with a phrase typical of tragic soliloquies, “Come now, rouse thyself!” Nero’s famous last quip, Qualis artifex pereo! (“What an artist dies in me!”), is perhaps most revealing of the emperor’s own self-understanding. But these, according to Suetonius, were not in fact his last words: As the Praetorian Guard approached the villa where he was hiding—barefoot, abandoned, disguised in a dingy cloak and hat—Nero summoned his courage, sang a line from the Iliad—“Hark to the sound I hear! It is hooves of galloping horses!”—and stabbed himself in the throat. And thus the curtain fell.