Rufus Wainwright gets operatic and channels Judy Garland

by James Belfield / 20 March, 2017

Rufus Wainwright. Photo/Getty Images

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright brings some different musical personalities to the Auckland Arts Festival.

He spent a decade-plus pouring his heart out as a ­cele­brated singer-songwriter, but Rufus Wainwright has long held grander musical ambitions.

His folk-singer parents, Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, might have pointed him down a similar path. But when his mother, who died in 2010, played him Verdi’s Requiem when he was a teenager, he was hooked.

He began staging his own homespun versions of operas such as Puccini’s Tosca, insisting he play the lead villains with a supporting cast including his sister Martha.

“I immediately developed this opera fanaticism. Essentially, at 13 it hit and it hit hard, and at that point, I started to think of my cousins as doomed divas and myself as sexually obsessed villains or gods or whatever was the most dramatic at the right time,” he says.

“I was pretty obsessed with the ­incredible menu available of the stories that I ­discovered. And this is one of the great things about opera that I don’t think a lot of people understand because they think it’s so distant and so unattainable, but even if you don’t like the music and the way it’s sung, they’re incredible stories. There are some really great dramas and so I was discovering all of these new tales and that fed my existing hunger.”

Growing up, Wainwright studied ­classical music, but was “always bottom of the class”.

He put aside his operatic ambitions and became a singer-songwriter, ­releasing the first of his seven solo studio albums in 1998, touring and becoming a regular ­visitor to New Zealand, where he ­supported Sting and Paul Simon in 2013 and played at Womad in 2015.

In 2007, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, seeking contemporary composers to enliven its programme, commissioned Wainwright to compose his own.

But as he readied Prima Donna, he and the Met fell out over his insistence the libretto be in French, and when it might be staged.

Instead, Prima Donna made its debut at the 2009 Manchester International Festival. Wainwright is bringing ­selections from it to the Auckland Arts Festival, where it is double billed with his live ­tribute to Judy Garland, Rufus Does Judy.

Both will backed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Prima Donna is staged with two sopranos, a tenor and a large-screen video projection of artist Cindy Sherman playing fictional diva Regine St Laurent while wearing the stage clothes of an actual diva, Maria Callas.

The Garland homage springs from his interpretation of her 1961 live ­comeback concert album, Judy at Carnegie Hall, which he performed at the same venue in 2006. He released the shows as the live album Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall in 2007.

Wainwright’s tribute to the gay icon, which includes her signature Over the Rainbow, has its roots in regular childhood viewings of The Wizard of Oz on television. “It just seared itself onto my sub­conscious.”

Now 43, Wainwright has mastered his own heart-on-sleeve pop and ­Garland’s show tunes and is working on his second opera, based on the life of Roman Emperor Hadrian. Not bad for the son of a couple of folkies.

“It was always made clear to us that ­performance was an honest ­profession and that the voyages that we were embarking on at home musically as children should be sturdy enough to make it in the outside world,” he says. “There was never any kind of padding involved in our musical upbringing. But that’s also because our mother really understood that we had the talent and we had the drive … and so it was always within the context there would eventually be a larger body of listening that we began our voyages.

“I just knew exactly what I wanted and when I wanted it, and I also knew that if I spent too much time trying to ­assimilate and trying to be like everybody else or be the top of some pile, I would be ­unrecognisable by the end. I just believed in being unique, I guess.”

Rufus Wainwright will perform parts of Prima Donna and Rufus Does Judy with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra at ASB Theatre on March 22 as part of the Auckland Arts Festival.

This article was first published in the March 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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