In an immersive audience experience, Nero Monologues journeys the inner workings of this notorious Roman emperor during his final hour. Ventriloquistic poetry by Geoffrey Lehmann is both spoken and set to music with a score by Peter James Learn. The new material is contrasted with Monteverdi and Handel excerpts in jarring reminiscence, while moments of vocal and instrumental improvisation lure the listener further into this story of a damaged, crazed artist as idealistic ruler. Directed by Marya Barry, soprano Sarah Toth introduces us to Nero.
Insight into the Creation of
Sarah Toth – libretto, scenario, soprano
My journey with Nero started about two years ago, when I sang the role of Nerone in Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea. In my character research, I learned a lot about Nero that is not as widely known, for example his avid identification as an artist. As Monteverdi’s music kept rolling around in my head, I decided to create a small piece of chamber theater by pulling together excerpts from Poppea, along with some other arias and art songs. I was delighted to stumble upon Geoffrey Lehmann’s Nero’s Poems, which portray a rare sympathetic view of Nero. I carefully chose selections from this book of poems to be spoken text monologues in between the musical excerpts. This early version of the Nero Monologues was soon enriched upon by the welcome addition of newly composed music by Peter James Learn, who dexterously composed original arias, instrumental interludes, and underscoring for spoken text. We premiered this piece in London in 2017 in the Opera in the City Festival, and are happy to be collaborating with Marble City Opera to present the U.S. premiere.
Nero Monologues looks at Nero during his final hour, right before he commits suicide. I seek to offer a humanized portrayal of Nero, and to explore a few of the influences and personal traumas that may have contributed to his tyrannical ruling. The opera exposes familiar themes: power struggles, political ideals, abandonment, abuse, passion, sexual identity, and love.
Nero had big ideas for creating a new “Golden Age” of art, education, sport, and architecture, but was not able to fully execute the ideals he imagined. Instead, he was declared dangerous to his own empire. There were many factors that shaped Nero into the type of ruler that he was, but I also can’t shake the question - can such a man change and could he have had a moment of redemption in his final hour? What were the factors that handicapped him from continuing to create and rule over the ideal empire that he dreamed of? What can we learn from Nero’s life?
The following poem, which I wrote after creating Nero Monologues, sums up how I see Nero’s story:
"Reputation preceding, perceptions always deceiving.
Mass murder to your name. Innocence stolen for gain. Forced into public and pubic places,
until that space was normalized.
Morality never defined,
except by that which strokes the mind.
Escape to sing and love and write
and build intricate designs:
A Golden House in the Golden Age;
gardens and organs, orgasm and pain.
"Misused power." Is it too late
to give audience to rising hate
through song and melt weapons of fate
to save this orphaned enemy of state?"
Nero believed that through a song or poem he could change the mind of an invading army. What if we could rise above our given circumstance and give pause to an approaching army with a simple song?
Peter James Learn – Composer
Thoughts on “Nero Monologues”
Collaborating on this project with soprano/librettist Sarah Toth has been a fascinating and artistically stimulating project for me as a composer, both due to her obvious talent and the fact that “Nero Monologues” closely reflects an intersection of many of my interests as an artist and musician.
One such interest, the juxtaposition and re-contextualization of pre-existing music within a newly composed piece, is an idea that I have returned to time and again throughout my career, as a source of inspiration and for the purpose of borrowing of symbolic musical materials. In this case, the historical arias that Sarah has chosen to intersperse throughout the opera present a particular set of exciting challenges and opportunities for the composer.
On the one hand we have had the chance to place these arias within a different framework than that of their sources, effectively changing their artistic impact and meaning, in order to examine the character of Nero in an entirely different light than that in which he is presented in the original works. On the other hand, in creating the overall texture of new arias, recitatives, dance, and monologue music into which these historical imports are embedded, I was faced with the challenge of negotiating the subtle line between maintaining or subverting the tone of the imported music through the character of the surrounding material. Coupled with a few other musical borrowings from historical works that the careful and familiar listener will note, this interplay between the old and the new music was one of the most interesting aspects for me as a composer in working on this project.
The theatrical, performance-art, gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work”) nature of this opera deeply appealed to me as well. I have always been attracted to working on projects that combined musical performance with other media, whether visual, poetic, or technologically interactive. Among other dramatic and experimental elements of this work, the use of Geoffrey Lehmann’s prose-poetry both as a text to set musically and as spoken declamation in striking counterpoint to the music was a great inspiration to both Sarah and I in creating this opera. Indeed, his poems (written as if translations of poetry put down by Nero himself) not only contain a great depth of emotional and contemplative substance, but even add moments of whimsy to what can otherwise be a dark trek through an idealistic but disturbed psyche. While never apologetic or blatantly rehabilitative in tone, Lehmann’s words invite the listener to contemplate a little more fully the fundamental grace and weakness of humanity as encountered in the figure of Nero, whom history often paints with stark and unforgiving strokes.
Geoffrey Lehmann - Poet
The full-text of Nero’s Poems by Geoffrey Lehmann can be found here:
I have been a national technical tax partner in Australia with one of the Big 4 accounting firms and was Chairman of the Australian Tax Research Foundation and have been involved in the design of some of Australia's tax laws. I am a lawyer by training. But since my early teens writing poetry has been my main life. I published a poem in the London Magazine when I was 18, have edited and co-edited five anthologies of Australian poetry, and in 1994 a book of my poetry Spring Forest published by Faber and Faber was short listed for the T S Eliot Prize. My Poems 1957-2014 received the Australian Prime Minister's Literary Award for Poetry.
At some time in the 1960s I wrote a poem or two about Nero. I was fascinated by him as a historical figure. At the time I believed he was the only absolute ruler in history who was pre-eminently (in his own mind) an artist. Then in the early 1970s for about ten years I wrote a series of poems in Nero’s voice. Over the next twenty odd years “my” Nero then wrote a further handful of poems, before arranging to have himself stabbed. (He could not bear to kill himself, so had his private secretary do it, after announcing a final line he had probably rehearsed: “Qualis artifex pereo!” – What an artist dies with me.
Nero composed a considerable body of verse, some of which was sufficiently respectable to have been anthologized after his death. Only a few fragments now survive, and I have not attempted to include them in my “translations”. Some idea of his approach may be gathered from the fact that his epic on the Trojan war had as its hero Paris, in his role as seducer. I have not attempted to write poems of the kind Nero may have produced.
As well as being a poet, Nero could play the lyre, hydraulic organ, flute and bagpipes. He frequently sang in operas, in female as well as male roles. He wrestled and was a chariot driver. Also, Suetonius says his interest in painting and sculpture was more than that of an amateur. He is said to have raped a Vestal Virgin and gone on robbing expeditions after dark.
As well as three marriages to women, he was party to two homosexual wedding ceremonies. Like Goethe and da Vinci, he seems to have aspired to be universal man, but unlike them, to encompass the brutal elements as well.
Nero was a populist who wished to bypass the senate. Suetonius and Tacitus were representatives of the political tradition which Nero offended and repressed during his reign, but the writings of Suetonius and Tacitus, a generation or so after Nero, are the major source of what we know about him. As there is no partisan contemporary account of Nero which has survived, we have inherited a vilified and scandalous portrait of him. Yet, reading Suetonius and Tacitus carefully, it is possible to discern a much more attractive human being beneath the scandalous surface.
Although Nero was responsible for the execution of members of his own circle and family, these were the reactions of a coward, rather than an aggressive man. He was terrified, and with good reason, of actual or potential political enemies. Actors, on the other hand, who were sometimes guilty of quite serious seditious statements, were treated leniently. He seems to have been fascinated by viciousness, but there is no clear recorded instance of personal brutality on his part in the manner of Caligula or Commodus.
He disliked the bloodshed of the arena, and wished to replace it with Greek wrestling. He was quite uninterested in military matters, and believed that his own artistic example and the enlightenment and splendour of his court would raise the consciousness of his empire, and be a sufficiently cohesive force. His response to military movements against him was to equip ladies of his acquaintance as Amazons and to retreat into artistic fantasies.
His desire to hellenize the empire, his personal style with its emphasis on Bacchus rather than the more official pantheon, and his inability to act decisively were the main factors in his downfall.
The famous fire occurred in 64 A.D. It is unclear whether he instigated it. Nero had in the meantime embarked on the construction of his great Golden House with its circular dining rooms, revolving ceilings and numerous architectural novelties. The grounds occupied many acres of prime urban land within the city walls and contained an immense lake, artificial meadows and woodland with roaming animals. A unique feature of the Golden House was its open construction, with long facades, which prefigured European palaces such as Versailles.
It is interesting to compare the design of Hadrian's immense palace in the following century, which was built around a series of courtyards. Courtyards, the standard unit for Roman domestic construction, may be delightful but they reflect a siege mentality.
In 65 A.D. the Pisan conspiracy occurred and many former members of the Neronian circle died, including Seneca and his nephew, the famous poet Lucan, who were both instructed to commit suicide. Later in the year Poppaea died, supposedly because Nero kicked her in anger when she criticized him for coming home late from the races. She seems to have been the great love of his life and Nero had Poppaea deified. In 66 A.D. he went on his operatic tour of Greece. Then in 68 A.D. Vindex and Galba led a successful revolt, and Nero committed suicide. His response to reports of the uprising had been to compose ribald songs about them, which remained popular in the following century, and to call together a group of his advisers and demonstrate to them the technical points of a new model of water organ.
Some of Nero’s Poems reflect the life of bohemian Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s. I was for some years a peripheral member of a group known as the “Sydney Push” a hard-drinking libertarian group that promoted what was then called “free love”. One evening I was walking across a small park with my then wife to some friends’ house for dinner. As we proceeded under some large trees we were disturbed to find ourselves among a group of shadowy figures who were clicking their fingers and filing in and out of some darkened public toilets. We began to hurry, staring straight ahead. When we arrived at our friends’ house, we said how alarmed we had been and were told that earlier that week, they had opened their door to a man, whose face was streaming with blood. He had just been beaten up. This resulted in the following poem, which deals with Nero’s bisexuality:
On the Beat
Down on the beachfront at night
savage hands drag
me into the shadows.
Each time I ask
do they bring joy or a knife?
The savage hands
make me lean against the brickwork gasping.
They could strip me, rob me, stab me,
I wouldn’t care.
But I know they feel as I do.
We know each other by signals,
On the beachfront at night
I go to meet my black god
who holds my life in his hands.
Nero personally planned the gardens surrounding the Golden House, his Mar-a-Lago – which he familiarly referred to as “The Shack”. My personal favourite of the Nero’s Poems, and which Nero himself may have liked best if he had been able to read them 2,000 years later, is about those gardens.
Because she coveted his garden
my mother had a man accused.
Stroll through our costly real estate
with me, Poppaea, our guilt excused
by daisies growing from cracked stonework.
But as we walk, fine drifts of spray
blow on your dress and make us run
like children down a cypress walk
through intervals of shade and sun.
You break a gilded sandal strap.
Our eyes adjust to sudden gloom
as on a grotto’s marble seat
we pause. You drop your sandals off
and brush the gravel from your feet.
Barefoot you’re off again, bending
to pick a small rose for your hair
and raging when you find I’ve set
the water-trap, surrounding you
with walls of water, jet on jet
crashing and bubbling on mosaic.
Panting and drenched we slowly thaw.
A bee vibrates a rose, we hear
girls on a distant handball court.
We can pull down our walls of fear.
An unwalled city’s open space
with vineyards by our blocks of flats
will halt our spectacles of blood.
Our unemployed will raise their hens
and lettuces from city mud.
Great parks will liberate our poor.
Grasshoppers click across ploughed fields
as we advance, hands linked, and talk.
Courtyard gardens hide and enclose.
Exposed to sun and wind we walk
and look back at our Golden House,
the colonnades of a long stage,
where we are gods on public view.
Gardeners will spell in topiaried box
your name and mine, my love for you
as obvious as this bank of poppies.
At theatres we kiss open-mouthed.
Livia was chaste, Augustus said
upon a million threepenny bits.
Our coins will say you’re good in bed
and love a landscape architect.
At noon we rest in a pavilion.
Facing the constant northern light
with brush and paint, I sketch the scene,
a Venus blotched with shade, the flight
of dragon-flies past iris pools,
ponderous birds snapping unripe cherries;
but worlds of sound escape my brush,
from pines the parrot’s tearing cry,
the stir and quarrel, splash and rush
of concrete channels painted blue.
When cornflowers flop in summer doldrums,
like hope, a thread of water quivers
into a rust-marked marble basin,
and everywhere small man-made rivers
feed ponds or race down water-stairways.
But Terpnos’ lyre, as we munch quinces,
tonight will flash through shadows, wait
by sunlit porticos, then plunge
through complications and create
in sound the waters of our gardens.
For winter by this wall I’ve planned
a windless alcove for the sun.
Naked we’ll lie and soak up heat.
But look! The sky’s changed, shivers run
through myrtles, swollen clouds are poised.
Over brooding acanthus beds
there’s purple lightning, a neat crash
as close as snapping timber followed
by dull reports. As rain squalls lash
and pit the surface of our lake
men see this theatre in the sky
as the gods’ mad and playful acts.
My sun-god is the sceptical
imagination lighting facts,
and, now the rain’s gone, steam from urns
trailing violets on balustrades.
A man at sunset blows a horn.
You stand, half veiled to tantalise,
and feed the geese and hares with corn
as they emerge from fading thickets.
All gardens perish with their owners,
and statues need the play of light
and water for their eloquence.
We walk past daisies shut at night
up terraces to lights and friends.