Rufus Wainwright Channels Puccini For New Opera, Releases Live Set

Alex Lake
Rufus Wainwright

Singer and songwriter Rufus Wainwright is known for navigating the border between classical and pop. Now his longtime obsession with opera has led him to write one of his own. Wainwright composed the score and wrote French lyrics for his debut classical opera "Prima Donna," which will make its North American premier in June, 2010 at the Luminato arts festival in Toronto.

Wainwright said "Prima Donna" contains elements of Puccini and Ravel, arias, duets, and romantic melodies, but no hints of pop. And though the opera may seem to diverge from his usual multi-genre inklings, it's actually a faithful homage to his musical upbringing.

"Opera is my religion," Wainwright told As a fourteen-year-old, he became enchanted by opera. "That's all I could listen to, and that's all that I could comprehend. It gave me all that I needed at that time, and still does in many ways," he said. "Writing this opera was as if I were writing a mass or a prayer to my gods. It was a very spiritual experience for me."

"The whole [opera] arrived in one fell swoop. It was a complete vision," he said. "I knew that it would be written, and I knew that it would be successful, and I knew that somehow, mysteriously, it would rise."

Wainwright carried his composition from concept to production, but not without challenges and criticism. "A lot of people, especially in the classical music world, are appalled, whereas audiences love it," he said. "I think in opera, you need that outer relentless and implacable confidence in your work to get it done," he said. "It's still "Aida" and "La Traviata" and "La Bohème" that fill rooms, and they've been doing that for 200 years. So hey, I can't be all that wrong."

Wainwright will perform at the New York City Opera opening night on November 5.

In the pop realm, Wainwright recently released the live album and DVD "Milwaukee at Last!!!" Wainwright worked with documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles to capture his performance with a seven-piece band at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee, WI.

"[Maysles] has a very relaxed approach. There weren't a lot of demands put on us by the crew," Wainwright said. "The footage has that feel -- that relaxed, free-flowing, cinéma vérité quality --which he's so famous for. I think the relaxed attitude relaxes the audience in turn when they watch it."

Wainwright said he and Maysles share the tendency to veer toward the exception. "The people and the events that he's chosen to capture are really unique and unusual," he said. "That's sort of the story of my career- I don't know many other pop musicians who have written a successful opera or who do Judy Garland concerts."

Wainwright's next project is a solo piano and voice record in the works for spring 2010.