Rufus Wainwright moves from pop and ‘Shrek’ to opera and back: ‘Patience is one of the greatest virtues’
The singer, songwriter and opera composer is now at work on three new musicals. He performs Friday night at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay.
Rufus Wainwright found an ideal way to stage a musical rebellion against his parents as a 13-year-old in the 1980s, but it wasn’t through punk-rock, hip-hop or synth-pop.
“My rebellion was getting into opera!” said the now 48-year-old singer-songwriter and opera composer, who performs Friday at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay.
“My parents were both musicians in rock ‘n’ roll bands. For them, opera was their parents’ music and part of ‘the elite.’ So, when I got into opera at a very young age, that was a total rebellion, especially for my father, who dislikes opera to this day. My mother ended up adoring opera, and we went on that journey together.”
His mother, Kate McGarrigle, died of cancer in 2010. Together with her sister, Anna, Kate made 10 albums between 1976 and 2005. Some of the luminous songs Kate wrote were recorded by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris (“I’ve Had Enough”), Anne Sofie von Otter and Elvis Costello (“Go Leave”) and Rufus’ father, Loudon Wainwright III (“Come a Long Way”).
Loudon, best known for his 1973 novelty hit “Dead Skunk,” has made more than two dozen albums. He commemorated Rufus’ birth with a 1975 song that slyly celebrated his son’s enthusiasm for breast-feeding, “Rufus is a (Breast) Man.” Loudon and Kate divorced when Rufus was 3.
‘Best songwriter on the planet’
Released in 1998, Rufus’ debut album, “Rufus Wainwright,” earned widespread acclaim and Rolling Stone’s designation as Best New Artist of the year. Elton John hailed him as “the best songwriter on the planet.” Others marveled at how adroitly the younger Wainwright’s lushly orchestrated music harkened back decades before the birth of rock to the work of Stephen Foster, Al Jolson and Cole Porter.
His rich, soaring vocals led a friend to describe Wainwright’s cabaret-tinged singing as “popera.” He studied composition for a year at McGill University in Montreal, where he grew up with his Canadian mother. His love for opera has never waned.
Wainwright’s first opera, 2009’s “Prima Donna,” was commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater. His second, “Hardian,” debuted in 2018 at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland.
“I’d love to compose more operas,” said Wainwright, whose impassioned version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is featured on the 2001 “Shrek” film soundtrack album. “But I always knew I’d be more of a pop singer than an opera singer.”
He splits the difference on “Peaceful Afternoon,” a standout number from his 2020 album, “Unfollow the Rules,” and on “Going to a Town.” The latter is an enchanting song from Wainwright’s 2021 album, “Unfollow the Rules — The Paramour Sessions,” which teams him with a string quartet for stripped-down versions of songs from “Unfollow the Rules.”
His performances on both “Peaceful Afternoon” and “Going to a Town” evoke the heavenly élan of vocal giant and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Roy Orbison. In turn, the late Orbison’s singing at times evoked Carlo Bergonzi, the light tenor who created the title role in Jacopo Napoli’s 1952 opera “Masaniello.”
“That’s a great compliment! Thank you so much,” Wainwright said.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Orbison. As an opera lover, I can hear a connection between him and the way opera singers project. He had the same vocal power as Pavarotti and Caruso.”
Issues of mortality
Beyond its musical resonance, Wainwright credits his love of opera for helping him to embrace his emotions as a young gay man, and — later — to address issues of mortality as the AIDS pandemic surged in the 1980s and 1990s.
His own mortality was front and center in 2002 when he spent a month at Minnesota’s Hazelden addiction treatment center. His stay was prompted by years of alcohol and drug abuse, including crystal meth, cocaine and ecstasy.
In 2008, six years after he got clean and sober, Wainwright wrote the song “Patience is a Virtue.” It reflected his contentment after the harrowing years of what he once described as a drug-fueled “gay hell.”
“I’ve learned to be patient over the years,” said Wainwright, whose sisters, Martha and Lucy, are also singer-songwriters.
“I’ve had certain lapses here and there, like everybody who is human,” he continued. “Thankfully, I’m in my late 40s and I don’t have that gnawing need to satisfy myself all the time. Patience is one of the greatest virtues. It’s something I’m definitely trying to instill in our daughter, who is 10 and a little less patient.”
Wainwright and his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, are the parents of Viva. Her mother is Lorca Cohen, the daughter of the late Leonard Cohen, a longtime family friend.
Last year, Wainwright and Weisbrodt took Viva to several Black Lives Matter marches. To play it safe, the marches they attended were in the suburban San Fernando Valley.
“Viva was very excited about it and felt energized and woken,” Wainwright said.
“She would get embarrassed when I started yelling slogans, but I shouted them nonetheless. I’ve grown used to embarrassing my child, and I enjoy it!”
A young ‘old soul’
Wainwright was a young man when his San Diego headlining concert debut took place in 1999 at The Center in Hillcrest.
The Union-Tribune’s review of that performance began: “Rufus Wainwright is only 25, but he’s already an old soul.”
It’s a sentiment with which he readily agrees, at least when it comes his penchant for bygone musical eras and artists.
“I definitely felt out of place and probably more attuned to an earlier period of music,” he said. “I also got a sense that , if I was living in that period, I might have been overlooked.
“It’s one thing to admire Chopin and dream of his music. But to live at the same time as him, I wouldn’t want to have done that! In a weird way, my backward-looking, ‘old soul’ quality really was more useful to me when I was young.
“So, yeah, I think I am an old soul. But I’m very happy.”
He is also happy to have befriended several legendary singer-songwriters.
“I’m really cognizant and reverent of the history that still exists around me,” Wainwright said. “Randy Newman, Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Van Dyke Parks — who championed me and helped me get my first record deal — all live in Los Angeles.
“Unfortunately, they won’t be around forever, and I want to keep in touch with them while I can. That’s why I occasionally visit these people and enjoy the magnificence they have brought to the world.
“When I came to L.A. (in the late 1990s), I had my own ideas and didn’t feel the need to ingratiate myself with the establishment. Now, 20 years later, I have more of a sense of enjoying the traditions that are there. ...
“I don’t love music more or less than I did before the pandemic began. But I have a sense of perspective, and I’m more humbled by the fact people need music fundamentally. I feel very fortunate to be able to give that to them.”
Rufus Wainwright, with Aimee Mann
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, 2241 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island
Tickets: $55 (dinner and hotel packages are also available)
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