From fireside sing-alongs with his family to writing for the Canadian Opera Company to celebrating camp icon Judy Garland to creating innovative electroacoustic settings for the sonnets of William Shakespeare, Rufus Wainwright has enjoyed an enormously diverse creative life. But which Wainwright will we see when he comes to the Orpheum next week, for a performance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra?
The answer, most likely, is “All of them.”
“I have several incarnations that, over the years, I’ve inhabited,” the 46-year-old singer-pianist tells the Georgia Straight in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home. “When I go out and do solo shows, for instance, I’m kind of the troubadour, and then when I produce operas I become the composer, and I think when I do these orchestra shows, in most cases it is a sort of broad representation of work I’ve done. Mostly in pop, but also tinged with some operatic influences here and there, plus a couple of Judy moments. So, yes, it is a sampler, but nonetheless it’s sort of… I don’t know. If anything, I think it’s sort of proof that I’m a great lover of classical music, because I think people are kind of struck when they come to it that the arrangements are very much devoted to the tradition of orchestral writing—and that my songs are very much tied to an operatic tradition.
“I’ve stolen from opera for years,” he adds, laughing. “So, if anything, it’s all coming together.”
Wainwright’s two operas—Prima Donna, which debuted in 2009, and Hadrian, premiered by the COC last year—have met with a mixed response from critics and opera cognoscenti, but that doesn’t dismay their maker.
“When I first entered into the operatic universe, I was a little naive, thinking that I could conquer the form with this life of a singer,” he admits. “But on the other hand, I am realizing that it is obviously a long game. And right now, I’m assured by many who tell me ‘You’ve really done well in this world, and you just have to be a little more patient.’
“With Hadrian, the word is that, you know, it’s a good piece and it has a future,” he continues, hinting that there’s talk of a Vancouver production. “And it’s only my second opera. As someone told me, ‘It took time for Verdi to become Verdi.’ ”
Even if Wainwright succeeds in becoming the Verdi of the 21st century, he has no plans to discontinue his pop career, which should see a new album of songs released next spring. Nor will he give up his own orchestral appearances.
“That is one of the great thrills of mankind,” he says of singing with a symphony. “But by the same token it’s also very, very swift, in a sense, because you can’t rehearse a ton. You’re not there to experiment, due to financial circumstances and also just the reality of having 100 people there, sitting around. I always get the feeling that it’s a bit like a fashion show, or doing some sort of terrible illicit drug that only lasts for five seconds, where it’s this amazing rush but it’s gone before it began. So, yes, it’s utterly thrilling.”
Rufus Wainwright joins the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at the Orpheum next Wednesday (November 6).