“Fluid” may be a trite adjective but it defines Wainwright’s two-decade career. The astoundingly prolific songwriter/performer handles Pop, Cabaret, the American Songbook, Art Song and opera with an assurance grounded in his profound love for music.
In between rehearsals and phone meetings, Wainwright made time for an interview. Relaxed and sporting a full beard, dappled with white, the 44-year-old was eager to talk about Hadrian, toggling between tours and working on new material and the next opera project. His confidence never came off as arrogance, and a mischievous joy ran through the conversation, frequently punctuated by laughter.
Though he broke through as a popular music artist, Classical music and operatic influences are everywhere in Wainwright’s work. “Opera was a secret weapon I could use for Pop,” he told the audience following a public performance of excerpts from Hadrian on March 21. For opera lovers, it’s more of a cult secret. Those looking for opera’s traces in his music can start with the series of doomed operatic heroines in “Damned Ladies” and the lines lifted from Verdi’s Macbeth in “Barcelona,” both songs from Wainwright’s 1998 eponymous debut album.
Composing opera and bringing it to the stage were natural progressions for Wainwright, who fell in love with opera — “grand opera,” he emphasizes — when he was a teenager. He cites as inspiration the massive works of Wagner, Strauss and Verdi and notable performers with a passion and keen understanding of the immense challenges in bringing a new work to life.
“I really respect the artistry and dedication of these performers, especially anyone who can hit those high notes,” he says with a laugh, but quickly turns serious. “They’re dedicating their whole being to this process. That’s necessary in the world of opera and I’m very appreciative. There’s much more a sense of community — and fear — that I find thrilling. It doesn’t exist in the Pop world at all.”
What does exist in the Pop world, Wainwright says, is a sense of humor.
“(Opera) is soooo serious, so correct and so formal that it can be stifling. But having said that,” he laughs, “I like both worlds.”
His first opera, Prima Donna, offered a character straight out of an opera fanatic’s fever dream: an aging operatic soprano attempting a comeback. Wainwright co-authored the French libretto with Bernadette Colomine.
“I’m proud of that piece in terms of its purity,” he says. “I wanted the public to get the message immediately, so I kept it simple.”
Wainwright included the soprano’s final aria, “Les feux d’artifice t’appellent,” on his 2010 release, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. The vocal line and rippling piano accompaniment are indeed simple but gorgeously expressive. It’s perfect for a recital hall or a cabaret.
Prima Donna’s 2009 premiere in Manchester, England drew mixed reviews, but virtually all agreed that Wainwright should give it another try. He was way ahead of the critics, already thinking about his next opera even as he was rehearsing Prima Donna.
“Once you accomplish this great feat, you can’t sit around on your laurels,” he says. “And the higher the stakes, the more important it is not to dwell on that.”
The Canadian Opera Company commissioned Hadrian in 2013, but Wainwright had already been at work on the tragic story of the Roman emperor and his lover Antinous. The opera is a response to Wainwright’s life and activism as a gay man and a story that he hopes will resonate with the LGBTQ community, who are among opera’s most devoted followers.
Creating a gay love story “as grand and dramatic as a heterosexual one” was the priority of Wainwright and his librettist, Canadian playwright and director Daniel MacIvor. Wainwright admits that ceding control of the words was difficult, but with a much more complex story, he acknowledged the need for a more experienced theatrical writer.
“After we met, Daniel immediately started giving me words that I liked. Once material appears and makes sense, you follow that thread. Our relationship was very… dramatic. We argued a lot,” he says, diplomatically adding, “He learned a lot. I learned a lot.”
Personal issues confronted Wainwright while composing Hadrian and completing other projects, including the death of his mother, singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle, in early 2010.
“When I was writing Prima Donna, my mother was around,” he says. “She was my greatest fan and took as much joy as I did in the process, and I could enjoy it all through her eyes because it was as much an accomplishment for her as it was for me.”
Besides continued work on stagings of Prima Donna (in 2015, he headed up a revival in Athens, Greece that included new video installations), he says his 2012 solo album, Out of the Game, on which he collaborated with a host of Indie Rock musicians, was also part of the healing process. Wainwright has released four recordings since Prima Donna’s premiere, including a double-album recording of the opera in 2015 released on venerable Classical label Deutsche Grammophon.
Despite opera’s big productions values, it’s not a lucrative career for a composer, so Wainwright maintains a relentless international touring schedule through July, presumably carving out time in late summer and early fall to attend rehearsals leading up to the October premiere of Hadrian at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto.
“In order to do this opera, I have to work much more. I can’t have any down time,” he says without a trace of regret. He adds that his appearances lead many of his Pop fans to the opera house. “I came to opera out of love for the form, and a lot of people followed to see Prima Donna who’d never been to an opera before.”
Wainwright tosses aside criticism over a “Pop artist” adding opera to his palette by persuasively offering some of his more intangible credentials.
“I actually do love opera — probably more than most other composers who write them — and I know about the history of the form,” he says. “In terms of an ambassador, they couldn’t do better than me, so… you gotta work with that.”