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!