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Opera is Rufus Wainwright's 'main squeeze'

The creator of 'Prima Donna' is not one himself when it comes to his varied musical career.

July 11, 2010|By Marcia Adair, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Rufus Wainwright.
Rufus Wainwright. (Kevin Westernberg, Kevin…)

Reporting from Toronto – — Classical music is often maligned for its apparent insistence that aspiring acolytes display proper credentials before becoming a true follower. Once admitted to the fold, you must bow to the altar of knowledge and denounce uncomplicated pleasure as the ultimate blasphemy. No matter what denomination you choose (chamber music, new music, opera, orchestra), you can be sure the repertoire is studded with landmines, the detonation of which will instantly out you as a Philistine or worse: not serious.

Of course, most people who like classical music aren't this insufferable, but even the most grotesque caricature contains some truth.

Rufus Wainwright: An article about singer-composer Rufus Wainwright on July 11 gave the last name of director Tim Albery as Albury. Also, the song "All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu" was given as "All Days Are Nights —Songs of Lulu."

In recent years, some orchestras and opera companies have tried to challenge this construct by collaborating with pop musicians. Blur's Damon Albarn is working on his second opera, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood has premiered several orchestral compositions and Rufus Wainwright's opera "Prima Donna" had its North American premiere last month at the Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity.

I caught up with Wainwright over dim sum two days after the premiere. I expect the outrageously outfitted bon vivant from his shows, but the man who arrives is T-shirted and jeaned with tired eyes. The physical strain of working through extreme grief (his mother, singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, died in January) while relentlessly touring shows in his face.

Despite this, the conversation flows easily and during the course of the hour Ockeghem, Hildegard von Bingen, Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Messaien, Strauss, Berg and Verdi all get a mention.

As a child, the family turntable (his father is singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III) was often host to Caruso, Gigli and Lanza singing popular arias. When Wainwright was about 14, his mother and aunt brought home a recording of Verdi's Requiem featuring Leontyne Price. "I remember, as it was happening, it was as if I was being poisoned, or virused or developing scales. My whole body was shifting, and by the end I knew that opera was my main squeeze. It became my religion and my language."

This is the third production of "Prima Donna," and critical reception has warmed considerably since the work about a fallen opera diva contemplating her career comeback had its world premiere in Manchester, England, in 2009. The multiple set changes and lime-green, high camp aesthetic from Manchester have been replaced with a single room in a faded 19th century Parisian apartment.

"Once [director] Tim Albury got involved, we had a powwow and realized that this opera is a very simple, straightforward drawing room drama. I'm very, very happy with the shift. It relies a lot more on the singers to transport the piece to the audience and trusts the orchestra and the score to do what [they're] meant to do."

Wainwright reads his own reviews, and it doesn't take long for him to deliver a précis of the Canadian papers. "This whole voyage into the heart of the classical lair has been really, really fascinating. A lot of the insecurities I dealt with growing up, with my formal training, instead of hiding them or moving on to another genre where it's really of no relevance at all, I've just placed them under the hottest, most roaring fire."

Most composers safely learn their craft in obscurity, and even if they become famous their first essays are rarely performed. As with many things in his life, Wainwright is taking his first steps in public. "I'm learning as I go along, and I think you can hear that in this piece that I become more familiar with the territory." "Prima Donna's" most scathing reviews were emotionally difficult for Wainwright, but it's clear they have not put him off composing in the slightest.

He is a man with a plan and is bloody-minded enough to see that it gets carried out. "The next opera I would like to write is a big, huge, epic, chorus, ballet, ancient world monster." "A new 'Orféo'?" I suggest. "Think more 'Troyennes.' Think four acts. But after that, I'd love to write a comic opera."

Separately from "Prima Donna," he is touring his new album, "All Days Are Nights — Songs of Lulu." Although the songs are only tenuously related thematically, the album was conceived as a cycle à la "Dichterliebe" or "Winterreise."

On off days in Toronto, Wainwright gave two concerts. The material is presented in the first half of the concert with the stipulation that the audience hold its applause until after Wainwright has made his exit. (This concept continues on his tour, which will stop in Los Angeles on Aug. 20 at the Greek Theatre.)

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