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The best and worst of times for Rufus Wainwright

How many ways can you rewrite Peter Pan? Well, you could begin the story in Montreal, add a piano and a lot of other instruments, send Peter out to fly over stages all around the world with charming songs and amusing banter, and give him a serious drug dependency. Then you could clear up the drug thing, find him a long-term boyfriend, take his mother away for good, and propel him into opera. You could call him Rufus Wainwright, and when you ask him, now, whether it's the best or worst of times, he will say: mostly, the best.

"I'm such an eternal optimist, it's sickening," he said, during a recent interview in Toronto, during which he said much and laughed often, usually while gazing out a nearby window over the city. At age 36, he looked a little tired, worn-down even, in his black jeans, faded T-shirt, striped woollen jacket and battered boots.

Grief can wear you out, and there has been a lot of grieving in the extended Wainwright-McGarrigle clan, following the death in January of Kate McGarrigle, mother of Rufus and his sister Martha. Rufus was at her bedside at the end.

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"I'm very sad, I'm devastated, I miss her all the time," he said. "The fact that she was only 63 was a drag, and that her grandson (Martha's son Arcangelo) was just born is very sad. But I wouldn't characterize it as a tragedy. She really did accomplish so much, and got a lot of loose ends tied up before the end, whether it was meeting her grandson, seeing my opera, giving her blessing to my relationship with my boyfriend (German theatre producer Jorn Weisbrodt), or having created this tremendous recording legacy and having affected so many people in so many ways. She died at home, and she was only very sick for about a month. It could have been a lot more traumatic.

"When a really strong person goes, there's a real sadness, but there's also kind of a celebration, because now you can do your thing," he said, with a laugh. "My mother was such a big character and such a powerful force, and that really made an impression on me and on everyone around her. We got it, and it was ingrained, and now that she's gone, we have the gift that she gave us, and we can measure it however we wish. She was the first person to say, life is for the living. I'm just following her orders."

Kate's liver cancer affected everything in Wainwright's life since the illness was detected in 2006. You can hear it in the album of songs he's releasing today ( All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu), in the tone of much of the music and in the lyrics also. Martha, for instance, is about taking stock of being part of a sometimes fractured show-biz family, and about the need to pull together "and see mother, things are harder for her now." The punch line is that though Wainwright seems to be speaking directly to his sister, he's really imagining the more likely scenario of talking to her answering machine - "call me back," he sings, rather plaintively, at the end.

The album is mostly just Wainwright and his piano. For several reasons, the big flamboyant production style of his last several discs did not appeal this time.

"My life had become a travelling ship, sailing from the Judy Garland port, to the diva port, to the Release the Stars port, to the family Christmas shows port, or whatever. I was travelling the world endlessly. So the piano, or me on the piano, became the anchor. Every now and then I could just toss it off the side and go to the bottom of the ocean and chill out for a while, and process all the things that were happening in my life."

The playlist includes three of the settings of Shakespearean sonnets he wrote last year for a stage work with director Robert Wilson, which is still on the boards at the Berliner Ensemble in Berlin, where Wainwright (thanks also to his connection with Weisbrodt) has spent much of his time recently. It was a relief, he said, to let somebody else take care of the lyrics for a change, especially since some of the early sonnets are so obviously written by one man to another. Setting a monument of English literature was only daunting from a distance. Close up, it became a matter of listening to what was going on.

"One of the things I do feel I've been blessed with, without a doubt, is a great ear," Wainwright said. "Technically I'm not necessarily the best singer, my piano playing can be really questionable at times, as a producer I sometimes go over the top or don't quite know what I'm doing. But my ear is pretty honed, and if you just sit and listen to the words and the vowels, they will tell you what to do. I'm able to do that, and though I wouldn't say this is the best attempt at setting Shakespeare to music, it does work."

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A lot of the music on the album has a Gallic, pop-classical feeling, with traces of Broadway pathos. Les feux d'artifice t'appellent, an excerpt from his opera Prima Donna (produced last summer in England during the Manchester International Festival and on the bill for Toronto's Luminato Festival in June), rather typically features a rippling pattern of piano arpeggios, as if Erik Satie had developed a crush on Philip Glass.

"I've been a big French opera fan for a long time," Wainwright said. "There's this great classical tradition and technical standard, but there's also room for experimentation and lightness. Berlioz, Ravel, Massenet, all of these guys, I feel like they were kind of my producers on this album. It's where I feel most comfortable, the French school. Must be Bill 101 kicking in, finally."

His touring show for the album (which launches in North America with a Toronto show on June 15) will be a "pretty austere" event, with an accompanying film by Scottish video artist Douglas Gordon and some glam-ish costuming by Zaldy (Michael Jackson's designer, who is fabricating a 17-foot-long, black feathered cape for the star). It'll be just Wainwright at his piano, playing the album like a song cycle, with no applause permitted till the end. "If people need to scream or something, they can, but not between songs, only in the middle of them," he said. He more or less needs to tour alone, he added, because declining ticket prices don't really permit a big band.

He will get lots of instruments to play with next fall, however, when the San Francisco Symphony premieres his orchestrated versions of five of his sonnet settings. By that time, the house in Montauk, N.Y. he has bought with Weisbrodt will be ready, and there may be more serious conversations about the next stage of life for this eternal boy: fatherhood.

"There's been talk," he said. "We'll have room." Between him and Martha, the Wainwright-McGarrigle dynasty could be set to run for at least another generation.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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