Monday, August 3, 2009

A Little Bit Heiress, A Little Bit Irish

An Interview by Andrew Daniels

The acclaimed troubadour, whom none other than Elton John has called "the greatest songwriter on the planet," has a penchant for doing things rather lavishly. In the last three years alone, he's performed an entire Judy Garland concert album in its entirety at Carnegie Hall, set Shakespeare's sonnets to music in a collaboration with the Berliner Ensemble and penned his first opera, "Prima Donna," which premiered in Manchester, England, two weeks ago.

So it's natural that Wainwright, who is calling from Long Island on a July afternoon a few days after his 36th birthday, sounds positively drained.

"I just need a breather," he says.

Who can blame him? Wainwright is back in the states after dedicating his blood, sweat and tears to "Prima Donna" in Europe over the last two years. The artist's first opera was originally commissioned for the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater in 2007, but the Met withdrew because of Wainwright's insistence to write the opera's libretto in French.

Instead, the Manchester festival took on the project, which follows a day in the life of an aging opera singer in 1970. It debuted -- to mixed reviews -- on July 10.

Read all about Wainwright's thoughts on "Prima Donna," his current tour and upcoming album ("a sorbet of sorts") in my full interview after the jump.

I wanted to wish you a belated Happy Birthday. Did you do anything special for it?

I had a barbecue, got sunburned, and basically told everyone the thrilling story of my thrilling opera experience in England. It was a fiery evening!

Well, I’m afraid you’re going to have to do the same for me. That’s the first question I had. "Prima Donna" debuted two weeks ago in Manchester to mixed reviews. Just tell me from your perspective how you think it went.

I mean I worked just so long on this project, from the libretto and the orchestration and working with the singers and the director. It was really a three year trek, and once we got there, I was fairly invested and nervous about what would happen. It really is quite a huge production. There are massive sets and a massive orchestra. So we did it, and all the world came. All the world’s newspapers and theaters of the world, and I would say about half the press was positive and another quarter was extremely positive, and there was of course the real real bitchy classical music crowd who were not happy at all. So in the end, I survived the critics, which is an accomplishment in itself, especially for a pop musician to go head on with the main classical critics in the world and come out in one piece. So I’m very happy about that.

So where would you say the opera ranks on your list of accomplishments?

Well it’s definitely the biggest thing I’ve done so far. I don’t think it’s by any means my operatic masterpiece. I think that once you open that can of worms, it’s a whole other mountain to climb, and it’s not really until your second or third or even fourth opera that you really catch your stride in many cases. With that being said, the territory has been discovered, and now we just have to ruin it!

Obviously it’s something you’ll do again.

Yeah, I’d like to do it again in a few years. I mean, I have to... first of all, I’m still a pop musician and I still love writing songs and I still have to complete certain contracts with record companies. I’d still love to have a chart hit at some point. And I make most of my money doing shows, and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon. So yeah, that’s kind of where I’m at for the moment, but I’ll definitely do opera again.

Let me ask you about your appreciation of opera, and how that started. You had mentioned in an interview that Verdi’s “Requiem” sort of kickstarted your love, so can you talk about more of your influences for "Prima Donna"?

When I heard Verdi for the first time I was about 14, in 1987, and I was just at a real brutal crossing of my life. On one hand, I was coming to terms with my sexuality, and the world was suffering from the onslaught of AIDS, and somehow opera at that point presented itself as a type of salvation. A mental salvation from the sort of cruel world we were living in. I kind of went there. It’s very much like when a lot of teenagers my age got into Nirvana and grunge and stuff. Everybody kind of needed something a little darker and burned, so I went for opera and it never stopped.

Okay, so what’s next in terms of recorded material? You’ve discussed recording an album that’s strictly just piano and voice. Is that still something that’s in the works?

That will be my next album. I’ve written most of the songs... in fact, I’ve written all of them. I’ve been finishing them, and I intend to release a piano/voice record as kind of a sorbet of sorts for the listener. They’ve gone from Judy to opera to French to English to whatever, so I just need a little breather. And also, I wanna tour solo for a little while, and then after that I’d like to make a big pop record for old time’s sake.

Let’s talk about the tour, then. You’ll be coming around these parts this week, in Pennsylvania. Can you tell me what we can expect from these kinds of shows?

Yeah, I mean the main thing is that I never do the same show twice. I have friends and family actually who perform, crack these jokes and create these sort of monologues that they do every night and they’re always funny. I deeply admire those people and wish I could be more sort of organized, but unfortunately I’m a little spaced out. So what I have to do is that every night I do it, it all has to be fresh and it all has to be new. Some nights are better than others, but I think the audience should know that when they see me, what they see is what they get. That’s who I am at that point. There’s no sort of artifice between me and the audience. There’s no real difference from when I walk on stage and walk off. It’s Rufus always.

Wainwright is on a solo tour, which brings him to Zoellner Arts Center in Bethlehem, Pa. Aug. 7 as part of Musikfest's Performing Arts Series.


Anonymous said...

Great interview! Rufus Wainwright is a genius.

katie said...

awesome, how did you get to talk to him??