Rufus Wainwright fell in love with opera more than 20 years ago, when a family friend gave him front-row tickets for the Montreal production of Verdi's Luisa Miller . In the middle of the opera, after the first act, the "extremely fat and ugly" tenor lost his voice, and was replaced by a handsome young tenor. "From that moment, I loved the art form," says the 35-year-old pop crooner. He would recreate operas at home, and frequent productions in Montreal and New York, sometimes with his mother, legendary folk singer Kate McGarrigle, sometimes alone. Eventually, he proclaimed "opera is my religion," saying that some of the highs of his life were experienced while watching the art form unfold on a stage. He longed to write his own.
Today, opera is not only Wainwright's religion, but his life. In a house he is renting near the English city of Manchester, with his mother by his side, the Canadian-American singer talks about the debut of Prima Donna , the show he spent the past several years writing – "a real, bona-fide grand opera," he says, which was chosen to open the avant-garde Manchester International Festival tomorrow night.
Prima Donna , which will have its North American debut at the 2010 Luminato Festival in Toronto, is arguably the most talked-about part of the Manchester festival. The opera tells the story of Montrealer Régine Saint Laurent, an aging soprano living in Paris in the 1970s who is attempting a comeback, while confronting the demons of her past. Most of the two-hour production is set in Saint Laurent's apartment; most of the drama is set in her mind. Part of his inspiration came from Lord Harewood's 1970s interview with Maria Callas. "It suddenly occurred to me that there's no opera about an opera singer," he says. "It doesn't exist in the repertoire."
After toiling away in New York, London, Berlin and Montreal, he finished the four-character opera, which is influenced by the late-19th-century romantics, such as Massenet and Verdi ("the soul of drama for opera"). The orchestration was most challenging, and he struggled to adapt to the opera world.
"It was a stern and tough lesson I learned going into opera and realizing how kind of rigid and disciplined everyone is, and how sometimes, you know, that doesn't leave enough room for creativity."
At times, Wainwright's life has been filled with as many dramas as a libretto.
There's the torment over his sexuality; a rape at age 14 after picking up an older man in a bar – something he has spoken about publicly; and a near fatal addiction to crystal meth, for which he almost lost his vision. He says he wanted to give up, but also found solace in the art form. "It was a tremendous relief to be able to totally focus on music and forget about, you know, whatever, publicity, radio, and get out of that kind of pop machine."
Of the final product, he says, "There's a huge orchestra, 70 people, for which I wrote all the parts. There's massive sets. Big set changes, you know. The vocal lines are very, very challenging for the singers as well as, you know, enjoyable."
The "massive" sets are some nine metres tall, and change at least seven times during the performance. In the last scene, every set element crashes on the stage at once, representing the chaos in the prima donna's mind.
But these larger-than-life ambitions may also be the opera's downfall. Daniel Kramer, the American director who has been working on Prima Donna for almost a year, says the scale of the orchestra is "almost unheard of these days and will be very impractical for the future life of the opera because everyone will have to double their orchestra size."
Kramer also has reservations about the plot, which he says is thin. "It's [Wainwright's]first time writing a massive story. Opera is always about huge stories.… Here, the story is much more of a chamber piece, much more intimate, in a woman's apartment. I hope next time he is able to reconcile that scale."
This echoes the rumblings among opera critics that the master of melody may be overreaching, and questions whether his musical gifts in short pop songs will translate to the opera format. One-off comments by Wainwright about opera being "hijacked by intellectual elements" were also fodder for skeptics.
"I think Rufus is, like me, a bit of a size queen at times and he likes to be over the top," says Kramer. "The question will be has over the top served him well or not?"
Alex Poots, head of the Manchester festival who co-commissioned Wainwright's opera with Luminato and the Melbourne International Arts Festival after his deal with the Metropolitan Opera in New York fell through, says, "[Wainwright]has not lost himself at all in this commission. He is not trying to ape Ligeti or John Adams or Verdi."
Poots has followed Wainwright's career for about a decade. "He is an emotional animal, Rufus Wainwright, and it's pouring out of him in this opera," he says. "The pop form, he was bursting out of it so it was no surprise when I heard he was composing an opera."
Now, Poots says Wainwright, the son of Loudon Wainwright III and brother to musical siblings Martha and Lucy, has found an emotional match for his musical talents. Opera can take his soaring melodies. The arias, says Poots, are "spine-chilling" and can move an audience to tears.
If Wainwright, the boy who failed out of conservatory, pulls it off, he may be able to move opera from a museum art form into more mainstream territory. "My goal with this opera," says Wainwright, "is to bring back the music and that everyone walks out humming the tunes."
In his prima donna, Wainwright sees himself. Both he and Saint Laurent have a tempestuous relationship with the press (at the centre of the opera is the soprano's dalliance with a journalist). Both have made a life of singing.
"Trying to figure out if it's a physical feeling or a spiritual feeling, and getting confused between both," Wainwright says. "What your body is doing and what your soul is doing."
As Saint Laurent sings in an aria reflecting on her lifelong dedication to her craft, " l a musique décidera " ("music will decide").
Prima Donna was co-commissioned by Luminato, the Manchester International Festival, and the Melbourne International Arts Festival. It debuts at the Manchester International Festival, July 10-19.