Singer Rufus Wainwright on writing his first opera
On 10 July the Canadian singer's first opera, Prima Donna, premieres at the Manchester International Festival. He took a few minutes out of rehearsal time to tell us about it
Can you give us a quick summary of Prima Donna...
It’s basically a day in the life of a fading opera star who experienced a traumatic incident at the premiere of her greatest opera, written specially for her. It’s now six years hence and she has scarcely sung since. There’s a journalist, who comes in and turns the screw about her big comeback. The whole thing is about whether she’s going to do it or not.
Is the prima donna herself based on anyone in particular?
She’s called Regine, so the name at least is based on Regine Crespin. But there’s also a lot of Maria Callas in there. There’s also the character from the movie Diva, and then there’s Norma Desmond, a bit of Violetta from Verdi’s La traviata and so forth.
Is the journalist portrayed as a rogue...?
Not a rogue as such. He’s very handsome and charming. I was drawing here on a couple of experiences I’ve had where I went to face the press in a condition where I was not 100 per cent – I was tired, worried and so on – and certain journalists who were aware of the power they had over me used that to really get me to spill the beans.
Did you always want to write an opera?
It was always part of the gameplan. Due to my extreme respect and love for the form, though, it was always a battle figuring out which story to go with. There were plenty of ideas I could think of, and novels and plays that I went through, but I could never pick anything that I felt confident about conveying with the abilities that I have – which I know aren't Richard Strauss's
What parameters did you set for the plot?
I needed a story that was viable and deep, but on the other hand quite simple and direct – and not with a huge chorus, or taking place over 100 years or with battle themes and so on. I think that’s why I like Puccini’s Suor Angelica – you get a very simple story with very basic things happening, but infused with the steroid of opera, it’ll do something.
So is Puccini in general an inspiration?
I’ve gone in and out of love with Puccini. For a while I was really into him, and then you get sick of the saccharine element and the masochistic tendencies. Now, actually, I’ve come back round to him and have come to realise just how musically and dramatically amazing he is. He’s one of the few composers who can deal melodically with what to him were contemporary themes and characters, from cowboys to artists living in Paris.
Have you enjoyed writing the opera?
Very much so! There have been a number of trials, tribulations and rebuffs, but looking back it’s been relatively easy. That’s because the moment the story dawned on me, I knew that these characters had to come to life and it was my job to do that. It was very much a vision that had to be met. I think it has to be like that when you write an opera – you have to have no insecurities about what you’re doing. That doesn’t mean it will necessarily be a success, but to go through that extreme laborious process, you need to have that sort of energy.
Interview by Jeremy Pound
Image: Ellis Parrinder