TORONTO – Classical music is often maligned for its apparent insistence that aspiring acolytes display proper credentials before becoming a true follower. Once admitted to the fold, you must bow to the altar of knowledge and denounce uncomplicated pleasure as the ultimate blasphemy. No matter what denomination you choose (chamber music, new music, opera, orchestra), you can be sure the repertoire is studded with landmines, the detonation of which will instantly out you as a Philistine or worse: not serious.
Of course, most people who like classical music aren’t this insufferable, but even the most grotesque caricature contains some truth.
In recent years, some orchestras and opera companies have tried to challenge this construct by collaborating with pop musicians. Blur’s Damon Albarn is working on his second opera, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has premiered several orchestral compositions and Rufus Wainwright’s opera “Prima Donna” had its North American premiere last month at the Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity.
I caught up with Wainwright over dim sum two days after the premiere. I expect the outrageously outfitted bon vivant from his shows, but the man who arrives is T-shirted and jeaned with tired eyes. The physical strain of working through extreme grief (his mother, singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, died in January) while relentlessly touring shows in his face.
Despite this, the conversation flows easily and during the course of the hour Ockeghem, Hildegard von Bingen, Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Messaien, Strauss, Berg and Verdi all get a mention.
As a child, the family turntable (his father is singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III) was often host to Caruso, Gigli and Lanza singing popular arias. When Wainwright was about 14, his mother and aunt brought home a recording of Verdi’s Requiem featuring Leontyne Price. “I remember, as it was happening, it was as if I was being poisoned, or virused or developing scales. My whole body was shifting, and by the end I knew that opera was my main squeeze. It became my religion and my language.”
This is the third production of “Prima Donna,” and critical reception has warmed considerably since the work about a fallen opera diva contemplating her career comeback had its world premiere in Manchester, England, in 2009. The multiple set changes and lime-green, high camp aesthetic from Manchester have been replaced with a single room in a faded 19th century Parisian apartment.
“Once [director] Tim Albery got involved, we had a powwow and realized that this opera is a very simple, straightforward drawing room drama. I’m very, very happy with the shift. It relies a lot more on the singers to transport the piece to the audience and trusts the orchestra and the score to do what [they’re] meant to do.”
Wainwright reads his own reviews, and it doesn’t take long for him to deliver a précis of the Canadian papers. “This whole voyage into the heart of the classical lair has been really, really fascinating. A lot of the insecurities I dealt with growing up, with my formal training, instead of hiding them or moving on to another genre where it’s really of no relevance at all, I’ve just placed them under the hottest, most roaring fire.”
Most composers safely learn their craft in obscurity, and even if they become famous their first essays are rarely performed. As with many things in his life, Wainwright is taking his first steps in public. “I’m learning as I go along, and I think you can hear that in this piece that I become more familiar with the territory.” “Prima Donna’s” most scathing reviews were emotionally difficult for Wainwright, but it’s clear they have not put him off composing in the slightest.
He is a man with a plan and is bloody-minded enough to see that it gets carried out. “The next opera I would like to write is a big, huge, epic, chorus, ballet, ancient world monster.” “A new ‘Orféo’?” I suggest. “Think more ‘Troyennes.’ Think four acts. But after that, I’d love to write a comic opera.”
Separately from “Prima Donna,” he is touring his new album, “All Days Are Nights — Songs of Lulu.” Although the songs are only tenuously related thematically, the album was conceived as a cycle à la “Dichterliebe” or “Winterreise.”
On off days in Toronto, Wainwright gave two concerts. The material is presented in the first half of the concert with the stipulation that the audience hold its applause until after Wainwright has made his exit. (This concept continues on his tour, which will stop in Los Angeles on Aug. 20 at the Greek Theatre.)
“The No. 1 reason for me personally was to construct it so that I could not rely on any of my old tricks to get through the material. There was no fluffing it off or cracking a joke or giggling a little laugh and having the audience fall to their knees. They love it when I make mistakes. I didn’t want to fall into this trap with this material. I wanted it to be totally serious process.”
At a classical music concert, this sort of solemnization is the norm, but at a pop context, the silence ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable level. “Being someone from the pop world,” he said, “I adore the idea of no applause and being able to get lost in the music, and I did feel the need to offer that to my fans, who are really not accustomed that at all. I wanted to share that experience with them.”
It certainly was an experience. Watching someone perform without all their usual crutches can be excruciating because if it all goes wrong, as it did in places in the concert I saw the previous evening, there is no parachute to soften a crash landing.
As soon as the first whoops and hollers of the second half sounded, the tension immediately left the room. It was relaxing at first, but it didn’t take long to see that Wainwright’s opening noodles were just another version of Pavlov’s bell.
An album tour and an opera production would be enough for most people, but Wainwright’s compulsion to create and collaborate isn’t easily satisfied. In November, he will be premiering his orchestration of five of Shakespeare’s sonnets with the San Francisco Symphony.
Opera is Wainwright’s main interest, but he is by no means a genre queen. While in London in April for four “Prima Donna” performances at Sadler’s Wells, he heard a performance of late Beethoven string quartets.
“In the slow movement of one of them I was just utterly devastated and dribbling with snot everywhere. My hair was full of tears, and then by the end I was laughing and ready to climb a mountain and go on with my life. That was all within this four-movement situation. I’m not saying that my show offers that necessarily, but I’d like to try for it.”
On paper it sounds pretentious, but in person, there’s a quiet earnestness about the statement that makes doubting his sincerity feel about as good as kicking a puppy. Extraordinarily self-aware, his intense self-criticism is balanced out by often hilarious outbursts of hubris. I asked for a response to the much-repeated critics’ gibe that his opera only ever saw the stage because he was a pop star.
The campy, stage version of Wainwright makes an appearance to roll his eyes and inform me that “I have won some awards, you know.” In the next sentence, regular Wainwright returns to add, “It’s one thing to fill [a hall], but it’s another to keep them coming. Maybe it’s a mix of fame and talent, but it’s working whatever it is.”