SITTING in a chair on the rooftop pool deck of his West Hollywood hotel, Rufus Wainwright looks like a prince enthroned above the city where he once caroused and created.
Personal landmarks surround his perch. Nearby is the Largo, the closet-size club where he frequently played while recording his 1998 debut album. Down on Melrose is the vintage furniture store owned by his friend Lorca Cohen, Leonard's daughter, like Wainwright the offspring of singer-songwriter royalty. Farther out on Melrose is Paramount Pictures, whose famed studio gates are a central image in the title song of his new album, "Release the Stars."
Somewhere behind him is the Chateau Marmont, where DreamWorks Records put him up when he came out from New York in the late '90s to start making the records that would establish him as one of pop's most distinctive performers. And beyond are the Oakwood Apartments, where he spent a year watching reruns of "The Golden Girls" and thinking about his dead grandmother, before he met people who pulled him into the city's social action.
"I have tons of friends who live here, and I've been involved in this town for many years and several scenes," Wainwright says. "I know that whole survivor set that's been here doing their thing for years."
Surviving is something Wainwright appreciates. It wasn't long ago that his taste for drugs led him to the perils of crystal meth. His addiction nearly cost him his eyesight and was accompanied by reckless sexual adventures.
He knows he's lucky, and four years after rehab he's a solid citizen by comparison, though he cautions that "it can switch on a dime." He declines to say whether he's living the sober life, but his appearance is healthy after a busy few days, playing a set at the Coachella festival and then headlining the El Rey Theatre, and all he has at lunch in advance of a flight to Berlin is a mushroom pizza.
At age 33, one of pop's most prominent gay performers is also in a relationship for the first time in his life, with Jorn Weisbrodt, creative director of Robert Wilson's Watermill Center on Long Island and Wilson's manager.
Stability comes at a good time, because the New York resident has embarked on a project that he calls his "all-time fantasy and passion" -- writing an opera, a full-blown, romantic opera, in French, about a day in the life of a diva, that might even be produced by the Metropolitan Opera.
"With opera, you have to have all your artillery available," he says. "I do not want any kind of silly slip to totally [mess] up my run at attempting something I've always wanted to do. You need everything to do it. Not that I'm saying you need to be sober to write an opera, but if that's an issue that you have to grapple with, then just don't grapple with it at that time."
Wainwright could be a character from a romantic opera. He looks elegantly tousled, his pale skin set off by his black hair, dark shirt and jacket, and sunglasses with a double sunburst design on the earpiece. There's a hint of aristocratic haughtiness to his manner, along with a self-deprecating charm.
"He does have a healthy belief in his own gifts, but he also has a sense of humor about himself," says Los Angeles-based musician Kristian Hoffman, who assembled and led Wainwright's first touring band.
"He moves on a much higher level than I do in the pantheon of rock 'n' roll, but every time he comes to L.A. he calls, we have dinner, he makes sure I get into the shows. The bottom line is Rufus loves family. The people I see at the dinners that are with him are the same people I saw when we were at Largo."
Wainwright figures it will take five years to finish "Prima Donna," which was commissioned through a Met program designed to enable playwrights and composers/librettists to create works to be staged at either the Met or Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater.
But that isn't his only move to branch out from conventional recording and touring.
Last year he pulled off the fairly audacious conceit of re-creating Judy Garland's famed 1961 Carnegie Hall concert in the same theater. He repeated the show in London and Paris, and he'll re-create Garland's Hollywood Bowl concert when he headlines the outdoor theater on Sept. 23, the event's 46th anniversary.
Wainwright has also done songs for the soundtracks of "Shrek," "Moulin Rouge" and "Brokeback Mountain," among others, and he recently wrote three songs for Disney's animated "Meet the Robinsons." He also composed music for New York-based choreographer Stephen Petronio.
All this diversification might reflect some creative wanderlust, but it's also a sign of a time when pop musicians who reside at a middle level of popularity, facing limited options for exposure, are seeking new outlets.
"I've always wanted a bigger audience," says Wainwright. "Due to the nature of my oeuvre, being that I have an eight-member band right now and I seem to want to hire French horn players all the time, you know, it takes a lot of money to keep this going.