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Rufus Wainwright Compares Verdi to Nirvana

Rufus Wainwright is an enigmatic singer from a family of Canadian-American musicians. He released his self-titled debut CD in 1998, and has recorded seven studio albums full of piano-based songwriting and emotive vocal performances, which have earned him a Grammy nomination and two Juno awards. On the heels of his recently released Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright, Wainwright is enjoying family life and writing his second full-length opera.

Kristi York Wooten: In the past couple of years, you married your German partner, Jorn Weisbrodt, and became a father. Big changes. How has becoming a parent changed your view of the world around you?

Rufus Wainwright: I have a three-year-old daughter, which makes me more environmentally conscious. For me, it’s about the future. I remember when I was a kid, we had these long winters and fall was cool and leaves weren’t brown really early on in the season. I don’t know if that means anything, but it seemed like a different world, especially growing up in Canada. Climate change has always been sort of my main focus. I think also with [what happened in Fukushima, Japan] there’s still a lot to think about in terms of what’s coming down the pike into the world’s oceans, too.

KYW: You’ve had hits with original songs such as “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” and “April Fools.” You became hugely popular for your live recordings of tunes made famous by Judy Garland (2007’s Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall). Now, you’re writing operas. When was that seed planted in your mind?

RW: When I was young, my mother [folk singer Kate McGarrigle] brought home this recording of Verdi’s Requiem and we listened to it from top to bottom. By the end of it, I was a completely different person. It was literally a requiem mass for my former self. I was about 12 or 13. The Requiem just totally hooked into what I was going through emotionally – discovering my sexuality right at the time when AIDS was devastating my community and dealing with intense parental situations. I always felt like that moment of first hearing the Requiem was akin to when people my age got into the music of Nirvana. Verdi was my Nirvana. My greatest experiences in the theatre and the most religious experiences in my life – of which going to the opera is one for me – have been with the Romantic composers’ repertoire: it’s Wagner, it’s Strauss, Verdi, Puccini. That era gets me every time.

KYW: You wrote an opera called Prima Donna in 2009, now you’re working on one called Hadrian. How’s that going?

RW: Great. There’s a book called Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar from the 1950s. It’s essentially a fictionalized memoir of what Hadrian might have written, loosely based on real history. Because there’s so little known about the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who knows? I like the fact that you can take these figures from the distant past, especially from the era of the Roman Empire, and so many elements are still relevant. Whether it was Hadrian’s sexuality (to be gay in those days was not easy) or that he created Palestine (which is still a big issue today), this ancient story hasn’t changed much. In terms of writing opera, I wanted to revel in the grand tradition of the art form. A lot of people will say we should focus on subjects that people can relate to and there are no budgets left for choruses and this and that. And dancers – are you kidding me? I’m a gay man. I need dancers! [Laughs.] Seriously, I take the opposite approach, which is that opera needs to be a total escape from real life. To relate to what we’re going through today is fine and dandy, but it’s really about being transported and completely swept away by a romantic notion.


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