Prima Donna: World Premiere
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND–The marketing machine is in high gear for Rufus Wainwright's new opera Prima Donna, which premiered yesterday as part of the biennial Manchester International Festival.There are banners and billboards all over town, and on Tuesday the Canadian singer-songwriter was the subject of an hour-long BBC TV documentary.But Prima Donna is also vitally important to Wainwright on a personal level – on several occasions, he has credited opera with saving his life, a claim that sounds less exaggerated when he talks via telephone about his first encounter with the art form at age 14. "I was dealing with my sexuality and AIDS and the end of the '80s. Somehow opera seemed like the most attuned form for these sorts of intense forces that were occurring in my life. It's similar to most teenagers who were looking for something darker and more intense, and got into Nirvana. Opera was my Nirvana."Although the music is expected to be in the same lush idiom as his pop songs, the libretto for Prima Donna is postmodern in that it is a meta-opera. The idea for the piece fell into Wainwright's lap about five years ago after he watched tapes of interviews that Maria Callas gave to the BBC in 1968. "I realized there is no opera about an opera singer, so that's kind of original," he explains.While the premise is original, the circumstances of the opera's birth are something straight out of 19th-century Europe. Prima Donna was commissioned in 2006 by the Metropolitan Opera in New York as part of its efforts to recruit new voices to the opera world. It was a huge coup – one of the world's most famous opera houses collaborating with a pop singer.But 10 months ago, with a kerfuffle befitting the art form, it all fell apart. The Met did not respond to a request for comment, but the most commonly cited reasons for the breakup have been Wainwright's insistence on writing the libretto in French, and the Met's inability to stage the final product before 2014.Although he grew up in Montreal, English is Wainwright's first language. Why, then, the insistence on French? "I always enjoy opera in French," he explains. "I didn't want to gamble (with Prima Donna). I didn't want to go through the writing, orchestrating, all the steps, only to find the words were bothering me."A production date is something opera composers lust after simply because they are so elusive. Mounting a new opera, particularly a composer's first essay in the genre, is expensive, time-consuming and extremely risky business. As such, there are few situations in which producing a new opera makes financial sense. Luckily, Wainwright has something that most contemporary classical composers don't – a name brand big enough to guarantee media interest and a huge fan base falling over itself to open wallets. When it was clear that Wainwright and The Met were through, arts festivals lined up to take over the commission."Manchester was always interested," said Wainwright. "Once the Met dropped out, Manchester was ready and waiting. The director, Alex Poots, is really into taking risks, innovation and also excellence, and really saw the potential. Toronto (the Luminato Festival) is the same way. They're always trying and always willing to put their neck out. It's the type of city that sort of thrives off risks."Luminato announced at the end of March that it would be producing the North American premiere of Prima Donna at next year's festival. According to director Chris Lorway, "Luminato is thrilled to showcase Rufus Wainwright's opera debut. I can guarantee Rufus fans and opera buffs alike will not be disappointed."Lorway's comments touch on the crux of opera's image problem. In North America, it is often dismissed as museum art for wealthy seniors. In fact many opera houses are making a real effort to connect with the 18-35 crowd. A pop star opera composer is precisely the sort of honey trap they've been looking for.Aside from the marketing pull, what does a pop musician have to contribute to opera that a classically trained composer might be missing? "I am a singer, so I can relate to a musical line much more intimately than a composer because I know what gets across to the audience on an emotional level. I went to conservatory for a little bit and took some piano lessons, but really I don't know anything. I'm not so attached to the state of classical music and that sort of freed me up."In addition to writing the music and libretto, Wainwright orchestrated the score. "I had to get some help for technical questions," he said, "but all the lines are mine."Like any new parent, Wainwright is not adverse to gushing about his baby: "I love this opera so much. You do get attached to these works. I want people to realize how big a departure this is for a pop singer and how I've really poured all of myself into it."