Thursday, 9 July 2009

Rufus Wainwright: New York's prima donna

I’ve long been waiting for an excuse to foray the world of opera (as a spectator, not a performer) to see what the upper classes have been so jealously guarding for so very long. And now I think I've found one.

A few days ago I found out that Rufus Wainwright, one of my favourite singers and musicians, has spent the last year or so writing his first opera. Documenting a day in the life of an ageing opera diva on the eve of her great comeback, Prima Donna premieres at 2009’s Manchester International Festival this week!

Somehow it makes sense for Rufus to be the writer of an opera. Although I’m reluctant to say so, (not being the biggest fan of West End musicals) it’s easy to see elements of stage musical in his work, particularly the way he weaves narratives through his songs and sculpts complex yet vivid characters. I can’t wait to see how this translates to the stage.

Although I guess he is one, Rufus Wainwright is an artist that I won’t refer to as a singer-songwriter. That term has taken a battering in recent years, being used to denote anyone (usually male mid-twenties) who can play a guitar and sing and write a song. And so under this useless umbrella term we have the boring KT Tunstall, the dire Paulo Nutini, and the frankly quite evil one-man-boy-band that is James Morrison (who gave these people guitars?!). Yes Rufus can sing, write his own material, and play a generous handful of instruments, but his songs have an emotional depth and ambiguity that we’re not used to seeing in pop music today. You can listen to ‘California’ (Poses, 2001) over and over again and still not quite get what he’s on about when he croons ‘California, you’re such a wonder that I think I’ll stay in bed’. Besides, you're unlikely to get James Morrison in a trilby and fishnets for Comic Relief, let alone doing Judy Garland covers to a packed Glastonbury crowd.

Those of you claiming not to know any of Rufus’ work may already have unwittingly heard his effortlessly soaring vocals on ‘Complainte de la Butte’ (Moulin Rouge) or the beautifully simple melodic heartache of his ‘Hallelujah’ cover (Shrek). After you’ve reminded yourself of those, Spotify ‘Poses’, ‘The Consort’ (Poses, 2001) and ‘Oh What a World’ (Want One, 2003). And be amazed.

Now where did I leave my monocle and top hat...?

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