Opera Babe: Discovering Verdi's Music Marked a Turning Point for Rufus Wainwright. He Talks to Suzy Klein about Death, Failed Love and Why We Need Saving from Lady Gaga

New Statesman (1996), March 29, 2010 | Go to article overview

Opera Babe: Discovering Verdi's Music Marked a Turning Point for Rufus Wainwright. He Talks to Suzy Klein about Death, Failed Love and Why We Need Saving from Lady Gaga


Rufus Wainwright, the widely acknowledged master of a generation of songwriters and producer of a string of cult hits, is not best pleased to be talking to me in an airless room in Sadler's Wells, London. He is looking unusually ruffled, as he has just flown in from Berlin and the flight wasn't much fun. The girl sitting next to him wouldn't stop talking about Britney Spears, "and in the end I just felt sorry for her. She was so talkative and tragic, just filled with so much shit from this culture of ours. She didn't know anything of quality; she was trapped. It's really important to get another kind of music out there--to save all these kids from Lady Gaga."

Perhaps this is why Wainwright is a bit tetchy, smells faintly of aviation fuel and plane seats, and is eating a cheese sandwich and talking all at once. He is, however, still full of energy, bursting with camp innuendo and chatting with his trademark American-Canadian laughing drawl as soon as we get on to discussing "real" music, as he calls it. Wainwright is in town to oversee preparations for the London premiere of his first opera, Prima Donna. And he is also getting ready for a live tour of his latest album--an intimate affair dedicated in part to his late mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigle.

Anyone who has followed Wainwright's career will know that, for him, music is autobiography. The intimate personal details of his life are the DNA of his songs. Everything is in there, from the musician parents (McGarrigle and the singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, who acrimoniously split up when Rufus was three) and the brutal teenage rape in Hyde Park that destroyed his sexual life for years, to the near blindness caused by a huge bender on crystal meth and the rehab resurrection with some help from his friend Elton John. That all these moments make their way into Wainwright's songs isn't much of a surprise--turning what is private into something very public is something of a family tradition.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

When Rufus was born, his dad announced his emergence into the world not with a lullaby, but with a song called "Rufus is a Tit-Man", in which he competes for ownership of his wife's breasts: "So put Rufus on the left one/And put me on the right/And like Romulus and Remus/ We'll suck all night." Loudon needn't have worried, for Rufus was most certainly not a tit man. When he announced to his parents that he was gay, both of them were shocked and disappointed (if rock-star parents aren't going to be cool about their children coming out, then who is, for goodness sake?).

It was opera--specifically Verdi--that saved the teenage Rufus. Verdi's music "became a requiem for my old life", he says. "After I'd heard it when I was 14, I was a new person. All I needed and wanted to hear was opera. It was the only thing that dealt with everything for me, that took life and examined its extremes. Death, redemption, failed love and destruction--all these things were happening in opera that were happening in my life."

This is not just bombast. Wainwright really knows his music, talking lovingly about some of the great opera singers such as Jussi Bjorling, Brigitte Fassbaender and Leontyne Price. He enthuses about details of Schubert lieder and talks about wanting to sing Berlioz's challenging song-cycle Les nuits d'ete just for the fun of it. The allure of pop culture has been replaced by something deeper; for him, songs still carry within them power, truth and meaning. "Pop music has become so sterile and commercialised that I feel that young people today are ready for something new. People are primed to have this very rich, unusual musical experience because they're so deprived. That's why I wanted to write an opera."

So, with characteristic fearlessness, he did. …

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