Reflections of Rufus Wainwright: From simple pop to opera
August 13, 2009
ASPEN – When the opera “Prima Donna” made its debut last month, at England’s Manchester International Festival, it represented a rare and noteworthy transition for its composer, Rufus Wainwright.
“One could argue it was unique, for a pop musician to write a genuine classical opera and not get destroyed by the critics,” said Wainwright, adding that the French-language opera, about a day in the life of an aging opera singer, appears to be headed for an extended existence, including a North American premiere next summer in Toronto.
Wainwright is set to appear Saturday night at Belly Up, and the performance – solo, on acoustic guitar and piano, though presumably he will be joined at some point by the opening act, his half-sister, Lucy Wainwright Roche – will seem a long distance from the full-blown spectacle that is opera. But playing his songs unaccompanied and stripped down, while a regular experience for Wainwright, does not seem his preferred artistic expression. Asked if the solo acoustic mode suited him, he gave a little sigh, and explained that there were good reasons to perform that way, including financial ones. But his answer made clear that, given his druthers, he’d be backed by strings, horns and a choir, all the musicians bedecked in robes, properly made-up, and surrounded onstage by props and a lavish set design.
“With pop music today, it’s pretty simplistic,” Wainwright said, speaking from his home in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. “You can figure it out pretty fast and move on to the next thing.”
And then there is Wainwright. The 36-year-old may be the son of folk-type musicians – the singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle – but Rufus began to stray early on. He studied piano during his childhood, most of which was spent in Montreal, and was attracted to the grander sounds of Beethoven, Mahler, Nina Simone and Serge Gainsbourg as much as to folkier styles. Listen, for example, to the opening tones – modern, scratchy strings, followed by Wainwright’s dramatic vocals, in Latin – of “Agnus Dei,” the first song on his 2004 album “Want Two,” and it’s plain that, for Wainwright, the jump from pop to opera is a short one.
Some of these tendencies came from a conservatory education, at Montreal’s McGill University. But Wainwright is quick to note that his time there was brief and undistinguished. His ability to make fully adorned, melodically ambitious music came not from being schooled in orchestral music, but from an intense desire to make that kind of sound.
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“I think I can match my lax attitude with an intense passion,” said Wainwright about his short stay in the formal music program. “For instance, with opera – I don’t know many people who care about opera as much as I do. I’m interested in creating that effect, and that comes across. There’s that famous quote by Beethoven: ‘What comes from the heart, goes to the heart.'”
Instead of classes in composition and theory, Wainwright developed an acute ear. “I listened to what an early music teacher of mine said: ‘When you listen to something, really listen to it and learn from that,'” he said. “I always made sure to dissect the music with my brains and ears and eventually my imagination.” The result has been music that invites close listening, with layers of sound and lyrics that reference history, poetry and the bible.
Among Wainwright’s more intriguing projects was the song-by-song re-creation, in 2006 at Carnegie Hall, of Judy Garland’s entire 1961 concert at the same Manhattan venue. The recording, “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall,” earned a Grammy nomination for best traditional pop vocal album.
That project continued an interesting thread in Wainwright’s career. Over and over, he has returned to singers as the subject matter of his work, from songs he has written about Teddy Thompson and the late Jeff Buckley (both, like Wainwright, the offspring of well-known musicians) to Judy Garland to the central figure in “Prima Donna.”
“Whether it’s Judy or my opera character in Paris, they’re reflections of myself, essentially,” said Wainwright, whose other prominent themes include religion, homosexuality and yearning. “The hallmark of a singer is, you’re one of the most dualistic animals on earth. You have yourself, and there’s your voice, which has a life of its own, and it can either sustain you or take you down.”