Preview: Rufus Wainwright – Prima Donna

In Saturday’s Toronto Star
Rufus Wainwright Prima Donna BannerThe marketing machine is in high gear in Manchester in aid of the Rufus Wainwright’s new opera Prima Donna. There are banners and billboards all over town and Tuesday night Wainwright was the subject of an hour-long BBC documentary. Prima Donna’s keenly anticipated premiere is the headline event of the Manchester International Festival, a biennial showcase of world premieres.

On several occasions, Wainwright has credited opera with saving his life, a claim that becomes less purple as he told me via telephone about his first encounter at age 14. “I was dealing with my sexuality and Aids and the end of 80s. Somehow opera seemed like the most attuned form for these sort of intense forces that were occurring in my life. It’s similar to most teenagers who were looking for something darker and got into Nirvana. Opera was my Nirvana.”

Although sneak peaks indicate the music will be in the same romantic idiom as his pop songs, the libretto for Prima Donna is postmodern in that it is a meta-opera. The idea for the opera fell into Wainwright’s lap about five years ago after he watched tapes of interviews Maria Callas gave to the BBC in 1968. “I realized there is no opera about an opera singer, so that’s kind of original.”

Prima Donna was commissioned in 2006 by the Metropolitan Opera in New York as part of their effort to recruit new voices to the opera world. It was a huge coup & one of the world’s most famous opera houses collaborating with a pop singer. As work on the opera progressed, it became clear that there were some bumps in the partnership and ten months ago, with a kerfuffle befitting the art form, it all fell apart.

RufusWainwright-03-bigThe Met did not respond to an email request for comment but the most commonly cited reasons for the break-up were Wainwright’s insistence on writing the libretto in French and the Met’s inability to stage the final product before 2014.

Although he grew up in Montreal, English is Wainwright’s first language. What’s so great about French, then? “I always enjoy opera in French, there’s not one opera in French that I don’t like as far as the language goes. I didn’t want to gamble [with Prima Donna]. I didn’t want to go through the writing, orchestrating, all the steps, only to find the words were bothering me. It was a wise move.”

A production date is something opera composers lust after simply because they are so elusive. Mounting a new opera, particularly a composer’s first essay in the genre, is expensive, time-consuming and extremely risky business.

As such, there are few situations in which producing a new opera makes financial sense. Luckily, Wainwright has something that most contemporary classical composers don’t: a name brand big enough to guarantee media interest and a huge fan base falling over themselves to open their wallets.

When it was clear that Wainwright and The Met were through, arts festivals queued up to take over the commission. “[The] Manchester [International Festival] was always interested” said Wainwright. “Once the Met dropped out, Manchester was ready and waiting. The director, Alex Poots is really into taking risks, innovation and also excellence and really saw the potential. Toronto is the same way. They’re always trying and always willing to put their neck out. It’s the type of city that sort of thrives off risks. They have a lot to show and are more confident.”

Toronto’s Luminato Festival announced at the end of March that they would be producing the North American premiere of Prima Donna at the 2010 festival. Director Chris Lorway said in a press release, “Luminato is thrilled to showcase Rufus Wainwright’s opera debut. I can guarantee Rufus fans and opera buffs alike will not be disappointed.”

Lorway’s comment touches on the crux of opera’s image problem. In North America, the art form is often dismissed as museum art for wealthy oldsters. That this stereotype is lazy and unfair doesn’t make it any less true. Many houses are making a real effort to connect with the 18-35 crowd, with varying degrees of success. A pop star opera composer is precisely the sort of honey trap houses are looking for.

Aside from the marketing pull, what does Wainwright think a pop musician has to contribute to opera that a classically trained composer might be missing out on? “I am a singer, so I can relate to a musical line much more intimately than a composer because I know what gets across to the audience on an emotional level. I went to conservatory for a little bit and took some piano lessons but really I don’t know anything. I’m not so attached to the state of classical music and that sort of freed me up.”

In addition to writing the music and libretto, Wainwright also orchestrated the score himself. “I had to get some help for technical questions”, he said, “but all the lines are mine.”

Like any new parent, Wainwright is not adverse to gushing about his baby. “I love this opera so much. You do get attached to these works. I want people to realize how big a departure this is for a pop singer and how I’ve really poured all of myself into it.

With 5 hours left until the premiere Wainwright is optimistic. “I feel very excited. This has been a big year for me.”

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