Is there anything Rufus Wainwright can’t do in music? Exceptionally gifted, he’s a superb and unique songwriter and performer in popular music and now turns his creative hand to opera. Stefanie Marsh continues:
Is there anything we don’t know about Rufus Wainwright? He’s constantly being interviewed or singing his autobiographical songs about rehab and falling in and out of love, and his “story” is so well known that there are quite a lot of people who know much more about the man than the music. There’s his precocious childhood (he first performed at the age of 6) divided between America and the French part of Canada. His close but at times strained relationship with his parents, the folk singers Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, who divorced when Rufus was 3, and didn’t like it very much when he told them that he was gay.
His promiscuous early adolescence; the brutal rape in Hyde Park at 14 that pitched him into seven miserable years of sexual abstinence. A nearly fatal addiction to crystal meth, recovery; his obsession with Judy Garland and the re-creation of her concert at Carnegie Hall. And, of course, his favourite subject, stardom. To quote his critics he has a tendency to “overshare”.
We meet in a small boutique hotel in Notting Hill, where Wainwright is almost unrecognisable beneath an unflattering brown hooded leather jacket and a shaggy Ben Hur beard. He remains infectiously charming, however, puppyish, delightfully catty and, despite the “you knows” and the “likes” that pepper his conversation and the double entendres he can’t help making (every time he says the word “ballsy” or “blow” he starts sniggering), he is obviously bright and reflective, as well as rampantly (and self-confessedly) egomaniacal.
He looks a little wan and unhappy, though, because he is recovering, he says, from Elton John’s White Tie and Tiara Ball the night before, at which news had reached him of Michael Jackson’s death. “I’m a bit sad about Michael Jackson,” he says in that languid drawl that loads everything he says with pathos or light sarcasm. “It’s tragic that he ended that way, mangled and poor and dead and about to make this big comeback.”
But he brightens up quickly enough when a few seconds later he turns his attention back to the subject at hand: his first opera, Prima Donna, which is to be staged next week at the Manchester Festival. He is “elated” about his new project, describing it as “just a day in the life of a singer and the different things she does”.
Unsurprisingly, considering who wrote it, “there’s a scene in it where she [the main character, a fading opera singer, Régine Saint Laurent] does an interview and it’s kind of hilarious . . . If you replace the prima donna with me, it’s very, very revealing about my inner life and my experience in showbusiness and some of the extremes I have been driven to.”
He’s fishing to be asked more about these “extremes”, but when no question comes he continues undeterred: “It’s a bit like — I’m not in any way putting it on the same level as that — but, you know the Madame Bovary c’est moi’ Flaubert comment?” Then he lets out the first of many of his famous donkey laughs. Whatever you think of the man or his music, it’s extremely difficult not to like him in person.
Prima Donna was commissioned by the New York Met, which cancelled it when it emerged that Wainwright had written the libretto in French. (“They commissioned me without telling me it had to be in English.”) And because he is as businesslike a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter as it is possible to be, and because his mother is fighting a protracted battle with a rare form of cancer, Wainwright simply cut his losses and started looking for other takers.
Nevertheless he never misses an opportunity to have a bitch about the Met: “Anything that gets done at the Met, you need to wait at least five years until it gets into the system and I don’t have that kind of time . . . for personal reasons.” By the way, his mother is “doing really well right now but it’s really been up and down for the past few years and . . . I know it’s kind of sick-sounding, but opera really is our baby. And I wanted her to see it and I’m sure she will be around for the next one and all of that but I couldn’t take that gamble at the time.”
Rejection by the Met caused Wainwright a great deal of disappointment and had almost fatal repercussions for Prima Donna, which seemed for a while to have been blacklisted. And although he’s been an opera fan as long as he can remember, writing an opera himself almost put him off for life, he claims, not entirely convincingly. “A lot of innocence was lost, shall we say, in the making of this project. I think I really placed a lot of elements of opera on a pedestal before this and the closer I got the more I realised that these people are extremely fallible and somewhat nasty.”
He says that there were moments when he wanted to walk away, go back to New York and hang out with Jaern, his German boyfriend of three years, and “never go to the opera again”. But, no surprise here, he stuck it out — he’s a pro after all — and having his own opera performed has been a lifelong ambition. Had the project fallen through, he says, he would have “died a miserable man” (Wainwright turns 36 at the end of this month).
The worst part, he says, was when he delivered the libretto and the production team didn’t seem to want to have anything more to do with him. “They kind of took it and now they’re going to do with it what they want and there was never a moment when they said: ‘We are really lucky to have this work’.”
He concedes that in fact they probably did say it — “a lot of this is in my head too. I was just so vulnerable and I really put myself out there. It was very traumatic and sometimes . . .” There is a pause. “I think the opera world is really used to dealing with dead people. And, really, I did feel dead at a certain point. It was handed over and it was like: ‘Why don’t you become Wagner or Verdi who’s, like, buried and we’ll do what we need to do.’ ”
What they had failed to realise, apparently, was the golden opportunity they now had to learn from a master of live performance: “I spent half of my time on stage; I’m dealing with audiences all the time; I have a certain gauge of a room as a performer — honestly, I don’t know of any other composer who has.”
Well, there is one other obvious candidate — Damon Albarn, who wrote the opera Monkey for the same festival two years ago. It was considered a triumph, visually if not always musically, but Wainwright is headed towards favoured territory now (himself) and we’ve already moved on to why he thinks the opera world needs to “evolve” and how “by getting a bunch of hot guys together and calling them Divo or whatever they’ve really gone for the really low Britney Spears kind of look to sex it up. And I think it’s such a tragedy and such a mistake for that world.” How would he suggest they rectify this error? “They should . . . take an example from my career. Heh heh heh! And keep it about the music.”
But there remains the problem of who, besides Wainwright, is qualified to bring opera to the masses. That’s a tough one, he says. And for a while he does a good impression of a person actually mulling the question over: “Somebody who is alive right now? You know, Paganini or Chopin, I mean they were all performers as well but, right now? The performer-composer thing is not that existent . . . It’s hard . I don’t know.” After a few more minutes of this he blurts out the inevitable: “I don’t think anyone could do it but me!”
There follows another round of delighted cackling. Is he an egomaniac? “That’s what it takes!” he says cheerfully. “I admit it! I’ve always had a ballsy outlook, being gay. Heh heh heh.”
He’s been called pretentious and arrogant but, actually he’s neither. Selfobsessed in a very upfront way, definitely, but, perhaps more significantly, terrified of being excluded. And, good grief, he’s competitive. As a trial run, he recently performed at an opera festival in Switzerland. First up was Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. “They got like 15,000 hits on podcasts.” Next was Wainwright, belting out, as he put it, “a couple of Mozart tracks. I got, like, 70,000 hits, you know. And I think that is an element which is intimidating.”
Prima Donna is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, on July 10 (0844 8472275) 12, 14, 17 and 19 (0844 8154961)