Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Rufus Wainwright-The Story of an Opera

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Rufus Wainwright-The Story of an Opera

Article excerpt

Rufus Wainwright-The Story of an Opera. (Decca B0014389-09; 128:00)

We have all heard the warning that opera is in danger of becoming nothing more than a musical museum, a storehouse of past masterworks endlessly recycled for a dwindling audience. Some observers believe this is already the case and even now are administering last rites to the art form. A closer look reveals a more complicated and ultimately more encouraging picture. Opera may be the grandest and most extravagant of all art forms, but it continues to demonstrate surprising resiliency even in these tough economic times. Remarkably, new operas continue to be created, and some of the most intriguing have been created by musicians who come to opera from other realms, including the world of popular music. It is an artistic rendezvous that can be exceedingly difficult to pull off, but even those attempts that end in limited success or even failure can be fascinating and instructive lessons in what music is about, what opera is about, and what it means to collaborate across stylistic divides.

That's certainly the case with The Prima Donna, an opera crafted by Canadian-American pop singer Rufus Wainwright, and the subject of this revelatory documentary by George Scott. The opera began its life as a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, but composer and opera company parted company over the choice of the language in which the libretto would be written. (The Met wanted the opera in English, but Wainwright insisted that it be in French.) The project eventually found its way to the Manchester International Festival, where it received what the liner notes describe as a "final triumphant staging" in 2009. Aside from the fact that one never wishes that any production of a new opera be its final one, this description scarcely aligns with the reality of the decidedly mixed and mostly negative reviews that the work received. Unfortunately, we are shown too little of the actual opera, especially in its finished state, to formulate much of an opinion about its overall artistic worth, although what we see of the mad scene, with soprano Janis Kelly in mesmerizing form, leaves us hungry to see and hear more.

The documentary may not serve up quite as much of the actual opera as we might want, but in every other way it is a thoroughly compelling look inside the creative process and the sometimes awkward collaborations through which the opera ultimately came into being. It also offers an intensely revealing portrait of Wainwright himself, a musician of prodigious gifts and boundless creativity who relishes not only the spotlight but also his own quirky uniqueness. Wainwright is the son of professional folk musicians-both interviewed in the film-and Rufus found himself exposed to all kinds of music and artistic expression from a very early age. At one point in the film, Rufus and mother tell the story of when the young boy heard an aria from Edouard Lalo's Le Roi d'Ys featuring the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, and they actually retrieve that very same scratchy record and listen to it again to relive the moment when young Rufus first fell in love with opera. Especially delightful are the charming home movie excerpts that show young Rufus and his sister acting out scenes such as the second act of Puccini's Tosca, complete with props and costumes, while a recording of the opera plays in the background. (No Hansel and Gretel or Amahl and the Night Visitors for him! The youngster is too busy playing Scarpia!)

The film charts Wainwright's explosive success as a professional musician, and we're treated to a generous sampling of his onstage work, including a headlines generating project in which he recreated Judy Garland's magnificent 1961 comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. We're told that Wainwright had never received much in the way of professional voice training, although soprano Renée Fleming suggests that his largely instinctive approach to singing has probably allowed him to accomplish certain things he would not have even attempted had he known more about proper vocalism. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.