Popov ’11 offers a modern take on the notorious Nero in his new opera

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Director David Kellett, left, and composer and producer Theo Popov ’11. (Courtesy Emi Nakamura)

The life of Nero easily lends itself to a great operatic tragedy. The first-century Roman emperor allegedly murdered his mother and his pregnant wife, played the lyre while Rome burned, married a castrated slave boy, and ultimately killed himself – having been abandoned by those who had been closest to him.

For his senior thesis, Theo Popov ’11, a music major and aspiring composer, has created a three-act opera centered on the last several years of Nero’s reign, during which the emperor’s world falls apart.
 
Popov’s opera, Nero Artifex, re-examines the image of one of the most notorious rulers in history and portrays him not as a “monster and inhuman,” said Popov, the opera’s composer and producer, but “rather as a human being with his own faults and tragic flaws” — particularly his artistic aspirations and his desire to be liked. Nero is presented as a well-meaning, vulnerable emperor who “didn’t want to deal with politics,” and would rather sing, and dance, and act in theater, said Popov. His artistic nature combined with the selfish ambitions of the people around him contributed to the collapse of the dynasty.
 

Nero Artifex will be performed March 24 and 25 at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Admission is free.
 
Popov collaborated with Veronica Shi ’11, a classics major, and Mariah Min ’10, in writing the libretto in English. Shi then translated it into classical Latin. The three based their story on ancient sources and modern scholarship — including that of Princeton classics chairman and Nero specialist Professor Edward Champlin. The opera aims to present an interpretation reflected in modern scholarship that tries to disentangle some of legend and myths that grew up around the ruler and reconstruct a more unbiased account of Nero’s reign.
 
In several instances where the historical evidence is unclear, Popov and his collaborators chose to side with Nero. For example, some historians claim that Nero murdered his pregnant wife, Poppaea, kicking her to death, and others believe she might have died in childbirth. They chose the latter account. Some sources say that Nero set Rome on fire; others claim that he was unaware of Rome burning and when he found out did his best to contain it. Again, they present the latter understanding.
 
Popov, who hopes to work as a musician and composer in New York for a couple years before heading to graduate school, spent last summer researching the music of ancient Rome in Europe – about which little is known, said Popov’s adviser, music professor and chairman Steven Mackey.
 
“There is a general bias that the Romans didn’t like music,” Popov said, but his research lead him to the conclusion that there was a “lively musical scene.” Mackey added, Popov “found interesting ways to use the few fragments of extant Roman music that exist in his opera.”
 
The production involves about 45 students — including a cast of 10, a chorus and dancers, and a chamber orchestra. Professional opera director David Kellett (and Popov’s voice teacher) is directing.
 
Popov hopes that audience members come away open to “an interpretation that they are not used to and accept it as equally plausible” and leave with an understanding that “history is not always set and very often the accounts written by the winners are not necessarily the most accurate ones.”