A Three-Act Opera in Classical Latin





Nero is one of the most notorious names in history. The Roman Emperor’s bad reputation comes from a mixture of posthumous gossip and political and Christian propaganda, which after his death painted a gruesome picture of a demonic ruler. Modern historians, such as Princeton’s Edward Champlin, however, have recently reinvestigated the story of the emperor and attempted to reevaluate his reign in a more objective light.

Nero has always been a fascination for composers: Pallavicini, Monteverdi, Handel and Rubinstein all wrote operas about his court. None of them, however, presents the emperor as the protagonist or strives to attain any amount of historical accuracy. Librettists Mariah Min and Veronica Shi and composer Theo Popov, on the other hand, spent a couple months researching the emperor’s biography and the world he lived in and decided to tell his story like it had never been told before.


The Subject           


Nero was artistic and musically gifted, had a good voice and adequate training, was fond of horses and circus games. He was, however, insecure of his abilities and needed constant encouragement. He had an obsession to be liked and was, therefore, very generous to the people. He exhibited great stage fright and general nervousness. His claim “the Greeks alone are worthy of my genius” (Suet. Ner. 22) suggests that his artistry was more appreciated in Greece than in Rome. Unwilling to govern, he viewed it as a burden and dreamed of a peaceful life as an artist. His inability to rule well and political mistakes were caused more by stupidity than by ill intentions. He lightheartedly dismissed the rumors that went around about him, not realizing the mob believed in them. And this led to a growing dissatisfaction with the emperor and finally to his deposition.


The Classical Latin libretto attempts to capture Nero’s complex character and present him as artistic and easily manipulated by the diverging and selfish interests of members of the imperial court. This creates an unstoppable mechanism of self-destruction that leads to the ultimate collapse of the regime. All characters are real historical figures:


• Nero (37-68AD) – Emperor of Rome and talented artist (baritone)
• Petronius (27-66AD) – satirist, advisor and friend of Nero (bass)
• Seneca (4-65AD) – Stoic philosopher, playwright and tutor of Nero (bass)
• Tigellinus (10-69AD) – depraved man, praetorian prefect, advisor (tenor)
• Poppaea Sabina (30-65AD) – beloved wife of Nero (mezzo)
• Sporus – a boy Nero castrated and then married because he looked like Poppaea (played by same actress as Poppaea)
• Ghost of Agrippina – mother of Nero (soprano)
• Epicharis – woman involved in the Pisonian conspiracy (alto)
• Chorus of the People of Rome
• Exotic Dancers

The Music


The main goal behind the project was to compose a piece that would present the world of antiquity in an interesting manner while trying to preserve the clarity and simplicity characteristic of a work for the theatrical stage. The dramatic story merited a variety of emotional colors and allowed for a multiplicity of compositional techniques from fugues and preludes to standard operatic genres like arias, duets, trios, quartets and ensemble numbers. The work adheres to principles of tonality but avoids classical chord progressions in favor of chromatic voice leading. Modal schemes often substitute major and minor melodies and are supplemented with ostinatos, pedals, timelines and thematic repetition as the unifying musical factor.

The orchestral instruments have been selected to mimic those played in Ancient Rome and the musicians were given some instruction in sound modification in order to bring more of the antique sound into their playing. For instance, the flute and clarinet often function as the two pipes of the Roman tibia or “double flute” and accompany dancers with playful folk tunes in rhythmic unison. The harp simulates a Roman lyre and is used in moments of artistic and musical achievement (when Nero performs a song he composed to his courtiers, when Rome flourishes under the new rebuilding program, etc). Conversely, the trumpet and trombone are employed for triumphant military fanfares, declarations of power and dreams of imperial might.

A meticulous analyst can excavate multiple fragments of Ancient Greek hymns from the score. The oldest known example of music notation, the Epitaph of Seikilos (ca. 200 BCE) has been shamelessly plugged in the pantomime scene and after a direct quote reshaped and re-imagined in different modal, harmonic and orchestrational schemes to create a dreamlike sequence of events. The Chorus of the People is similarly employed in an authentic manner and used to narrate events and communal sentiments from a central but invisible position like the choirs of Ancient Greek theater.

As the opera progresses and Nero’s world gradually falls apart so does the music: the sweet consonance of the beginning is abandoned in favor of more extreme chromaticism and polytonality until the final Liebestod-esque scene and the emperor’s tragic end.


Princeton University Production


Directed by David Kellett and conducted by Tim Keeler, NERO ARTIFEX premiered in March 2011 at Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall involving a cast and production team of fifty Princeton students and faculty. The production was made possible thanks to the generous support of four University departments.



A Note about the Latin

Veronica Shi and Mariah Min made special efforts to craft the libretto in the Classical Latin version that would have been spoken at the time of Nero’s reign, using vocabulary, syntax and idioms intrinsic to the language.

The Latin term artifex was the chosen subtitle because of its double meaning as “artist” and “artisan.” Therefore, Nero’s famous quote Qualis artifex pereo, often translated as “What an artist dies in me,” most likely meant to express the emperor’s tragic demise: “What a mere artisan I perish!” This dichotomy is the foundation of the opera — it is the story of an artist, who wasn’t allowed to be an artist, of a man who ruled the world but had no control over his own life, of a well-meaning but incapable emperor torn to pieces by the selfish agendas and malevolent schemes of those around him.


Perusal Materials

PDF one-sheet

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