Rufus Wainwright is perhaps the most contradictory thing to happen to opera since male sopranos started getting cast as Roman emperors.
The 45-year-old singer-songwriter has more power than most to bring fresh faces to the Canadian Opera Company’s audiences. When Hadrian, Wainwright’s second opera, goes up at the Four Seasons Centre starting Oct. 13, no doubt the crowd will be peppered with his fans from the land of pop music. Butts in seats, as they say. He may indeed broaden opera’s reach and bring in a more diverse audience, but that’s an afterthought to Wainwright’s true aim.
“I’m not saying that I’m going to write Tristan and Isolde,” he told me, “but my goal is to really try and match the great composers.” My eyebrow raised involuntarily. When we spoke between rehearsals for Hadrian, Wainwright proved himself nothing like his fellow opera composers. He is a pop star who persists at crossing the aisle into opera, an art form that he seems to love precisely because it is so grand, so elite.
Where his composer contemporaries such as Jake Heggie and Kevin Puts demonstrate humble reverence for their craft – they’re quick to direct applause toward the singers, conductors and directors that helped their opera see a successful debut – Wainwright is vocal about his one-man goal, a task that is, according to him, yet unfinished: “Just, like, writing the great American opera.”
So ravenous for opera is Wainwright that he insists on writing them before he does his homework. He wrote Prima Donna (2009) before he learned how to do his own orchestration – an odd oversight for someone so inspired by the likes of Verdi and Wagner, both masters of the orchestra. And although the American-born songwriter grew up in Montreal, he is admittedly unaware of the history of opera in Canada (“Teach me!” he exclaimed, endearingly); on Wainwright’s list of reasons to write Hadrian, adding to the Canadian operatic canon takes a remarkably low place. Amid contemporary composers eager to see their operas go up on a major stage, it seems as though Wainwright’s pop fame has allowed him to jump the queue.
It certainly is curious, Wainwright’s overt aim to be a Great Opera Composer. It has an air of overshadowing what makes an opera actually great – excellent compositional technique, for one – and it risks skipping steps in the process out of excitement for a finished product. More bluntly put, Wainwright has an air of egotism that may taint and strip away at the praise his new opera might deserve.
Wainwright calls his first foray into opera a “crash landing,” and he seems to take his shattered innocence in stride. “I really felt like I was escaping the big, bad pop world and going to some place where they really appreciate musicality and love creative individuality, and that they were so excited to have some new blood.”
After meeting resistance from critics – Prima Donna was deemed “lumpy,” “banal,” and “the worst new opera I’ve ever seen” – Wainwright realized that, “All of that was wrong.”
But really, what is it that we opera fans want? Do we not agree that opera could use a celebrity-induced publicity boost? Are we not curious to hear new works? And do we not share Wainwright’s giddy adoration for opera?
Wainwright may indeed bring out the worst in opera’s most loyal fans. Since Prima Donna, his fame in the pop music world has been not an advantage, but a hindrance, signalling that Wainwright is somehow a less serious opera composer. We, the people who graciously tell others that opera is for everyone, essentially told Wainwright that he was not welcome. No, he would not be forgiven for any faults in his very first opera (graces we give in spades to the early works of Verdi and Mozart), and no, he probably shouldn’t be given another chance.
But admittedly, Wainwright still has the guts to stride back into the opera arena, and under no discreet circumstances. Hadrian has the composer surrounded by giants of their domains; librettist Daniel MacIvor and director Peter Hinton are heavy hitters of the theatre world, and the cast of this world premiere is led by operatic A-listers such as Thomas Hampson and Karita Mattila.
A meeker man may have been hustled out the door after Prima Donna. It was an experience that came with a lost battle with the Metropolitan Opera over the opera’s language (Wainwright wanted it in French, and the Met’s general director Peter Gelb insisted on English), and some decent pummeling by the critics in their reviews. But Wainwright has, essentially, chosen to give the opera industry a second chance.
This is not the time for opera’s fans to be elitist. We will not find ourselves on the right side of history if we sit with folded arms, waiting for Hadrian to be faulty. Wainwright may indeed be enamoured with opera to the point of looking frivolous – this is the man who, after all, attended the premiere of Prima Donna dressed as Verdi – but he’s paying attention to the industry. “The opera world itself is enough in crisis that it needs these different voices, and this dedication.”
Wainwright may be more like his great operatic influences than we give him credit for. Wagner wasn’t exactly known for humility, after all.