Rufus Wainwright (Credit: Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty Images)
This weekend, Rufus Wainwright premiered his French-language opera, Prima Donna, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to a packed crowd that included Yoko Ono and Anjelica Houston.
Which begs the question: what other pop star could get away with (a) writing a French-language opera and (b) calling it Prima Donna?
Well, if anyone can pull it off, it’s Wainwright. The Canadian king of cabaret pop has always had a flair for the dramatic. He loves penned-in-cursive lyrics about cigarettes and peach trees and angels on high.
Fashion-wise, he’ll gladly trade the traditional for the elaborately feathered. And, according to the recent documentary Prima Donna, he’s always loved opera. He’s been listening to it since he was a teenager, casting his sister and his cousins in elaborate versions of Tosca, which he filmed with the family camcorder.
So when the Metropolitan Opera first suggested that he might submit a libretto, he composed one with Bernadette Colomine. (When the Met insisted that they stage the opera in English, Wainwright took it to the NYC Opera, which took it to BAM.) Loosely inspired by the life of Maria Callas, it’s about an aging opera star named Régine Saint Laurent, who’s hiding out in Paris in the 1970s, anxiously preparing for her comeback after losing her voice six years previously.
“One of my favorite things that I like to say now is that I relate a lot to Mozart,” Wainwright recently told EW.com. “Not so much in terms of the genius factor. More in terms of the dead factor. It’s so, so laborious and time-consuming and emotionally draining. You can’t skimp on the work, whether it’s the first violin part or the heartstrings.”
The opera’s also a pretty hard sell, even for your average Wainwright fan. (I should know. I’ve only seen one opera, Tosca, and even now, I couldn’t tell you what distinguishes it from other operas. The death? The betrayals? All the singing about death and betrayals?) So I attended the Brooklyn premiere of Prima Donna with one question in mind: Should you spend your night listening to rising-star tenors and sopranos, delivering hard-bellowed odes to “faded glory” and “passionate love”—in French?
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