Diva forever for pop’s prima donna

Verdi offered the teenage Rufus Wainwright consolation and escape. Now, inspired by Callas, the spar

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. 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 Björling, 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'été 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. Prima Donna, set in 1970s Paris, tells the story of an ageing diva, haunted by her past, who
attempts one final performance. Wainwright says the story came to him "in a flash", while he was watching an old TV interview with Maria Callas. Her stately, imperious dignity struck a chord with Wainwright, who took the idea to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Ultimately, it got cold feet about the project (Wainwright insisted on writing the libretto in French; the Met thought otherwise), but the commission was snapped up by the Manchester International Festival, where the opera received its world premiere last year.

Having always been in complete creative control, Wainwright found stepping into the world of opera a shock. He had performed other people's music - he'd just finished his song-for-song reconstruction of Judy Garland's legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert - but now other people were taking ownership of his material. He doesn't name names, but implies that he and the director clashed on the Manchester production. "It was scary - I was shut out of rehearsals; they tried to change the score without telling me. I almost had to take legal action and the singers then wouldn't tell me a damned thing. That's when you understand why Wagner and Verdi were such assholes sometimes - you kind of have to be an asshole to get what you want in an opera house."

Partly because of that "horrifying" experience, and partly because he nearly bankrupted himself getting Prima Donna on to the stage, Wainwright then went back into the studio and recorded a new album. All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu sees him back on familiar territory - just his voice and a piano.

From the opening bars, this album confirms Wainwright's talent and sophistication. The first song, "Who Are You New York", is a triumphant love letter to his adopted home town, forged from the sparest of musical means, while "Martha" is a plea to his sister for them not to be "angry with each other any more" - its simple, childlike tune as spontaneous as speech.

It is a huge technical challenge for one person to perform this music. The piano parts ask for a great deal of physical movement up and down the keyboard, while the microphone requires that Wainwright's face - and voice - stay abso­lutely still. The album is a tapestry of moods and atmospheres, opening up the theatre of his memories for our delight and pleasure, all delivered in his sardonic, half-smirking tenor.

Wainwright makes fear, loneliness, doubt and desperation sound tantalisingly beautiful. "I sometimes feel that I am singing to dead composers, to Mahler or Sibelius. Those are the ones who I hope might be interested."

It is no coincidence that he mentions composers who wrote lyrical, turbulent music loaded with personal and cultural symbolism. But, he laughs, "at the same time, I wouldn't mind having a great big pop hit. You know, if you devote yourself to opera, you have to expect a serious pay cut - and after Prima Donna I seriously need to replenish the coffers!"

With his blend of pop, cabaret, folk and baroque opera, Wainwright is unlikely ever to score a big commercial hit. In an age of rock poseurs and Simon Cowell clones, he has self-consciously modelled himself as the high priest of the art song. He seems almost to hail from a different era, more Cole Porter than Coldplay. But if there is a place in today's world for a brooding musical prophet, for a soothsayer in a soulless age, then we might need Rufus Wainwright. He'll just have to leave the number-one hits to Britney.

Suzy Klein is a presenter for BBC Radio 3
“Prima Donna" is at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London EC1, from 12 to 17 April
“All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu" (Polydor) is released on 5 April

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis