December 5, 2018 at 11:27 am EST | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Rufus Wainwright on opera, revisiting his first two albums
Rufus Wainwright, gay news, Washington Blade

Singer/songwriter/composer Rufus Wainwright, seen here in a vintage outtake from the ‘Poses’ sessions, says launching an opera is a Herculean undertaking but one his artistic impulses required. (Photo by Greg Gorman)

Rufus Wainwright


All These Poses Anniversary Tour 2018


Saturday, Dec. 8


8 p.m.


Music Center at Strathmore


5301 Tuckerman Lane


North Bethesda, Md.



Singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright, 45, is on tour celebrating 20 years since his debut. He’s touring a revival of his first two albums and is fresh off the October premiere of his second opera, the gay-themed “Hadrian” about the Roman emperor of the title and his male lover Antinous. It launched with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. Wainwright spoke to the Blade by phone from Minnesota.

WASHINGTON BLADE: How is your tour going so far?

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: It’s going great. It’s been pretty amazing actually. I’m really kicking myself in terms of just in wonder on how in God’s name I could have gotten such a great band together as well as writing an opera and being a father and stuff. … I’m really beyond satisfied with the band that we’ve brought out for the “Poses Tour.” It’s really, really fantastic.

BLADE: You do most of your (1998 eponymous) debut album but mix it up but then you do “Poses” (2001) straight through in its entirety. Why?

WAINWRIGHT: I think to just perform both albums back to back would have been a little too clinical for the audience. It’s a rather long evening and I wanted to mix it up in the sense that I’d be able to present some of my new projects like this Canadian album that I released called “Northern Stars,” so I do like one Joni Mitchell song to promote that then I have a new song “Sword of Damocles” that I wanted to sing so I wanted to have some freedom to be able to swim around a bit. But then in the second half we do “Poses” from top to bottom and that gives a really different character to the second half of the show.

BLADE: Pretty faithful arrangements?

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, we’re trying to capture the original lines as best we can. We can’t get all the harmonies and we don’t have an orchestra of course, but otherwise it’s very faithful to the original.

BLADE: Sometimes something works great on a record at home but can feel very different in a live room. Any issues with that translation?

WAINWRIGHT: There doesn’t seem to be. What’s becoming evident to me is that my original strategy of writing songs that are impressive both to sing and to communicate a message, that’s at the heart of each piece. All the arrangements and harmonies and different mixes are really there to serve the song. That’s how I always felt in the studio and it’s still about that structure, even subconsciously, when I perform it in public.

BLADE: How was it performing at the Joni Mitchell 75th birthday tribute concerts a few weeks ago?

WAINWRIGHT: It was amazing. I was able to share the stage with some real legends of the industry be it Seal or Diana Krall or Emmylou Harris, all these amazing people. And then having Joni there the second night kind of beaming in the audience as we sang was a real honor and privilege.

BLADE: How did it work out that you sang “Blue”? Did you pick that or Joni?

WAINWRIGHT: Actually my husband chose that song. Nobody had taken it, I think mainly due to the height of its nature. I mean it’s an iconic piece and it’s so tied to Joni’s individualistic style that nobody really requested it so (event creator/Wainwright spouse) Jorn (Weisbrodt) sort of put it forth and said it would be a real challenge for you to do “Blue” and me being a man who loves to complicate his life you know, jumped at the chance.

BLADE: How is Joni? Is she able to walk and talk? (Mitchell had a brain aneurysm in 2015)

WAINWRIGHT: She walks with assistance and she talks. It’s not as fierce as it once was. I don’t in any way want to minimize what occurred to her medically and it’s not something I would wish on anyone but that being said, I do feel that there is essentially — I don’t know, she’s softened in a way, which you know with strokes the opposite can happen. You can become incredibly bitter and angry and just be in a worse place. I don’t feel from my perspective that that has occurred to her. I think she’s in a real place of acceptance, which is good to be in when you’re older.

BLADE: Did you know from the outset that Hadrian (the title character in Wainwright’s new opera) was a bottom?

WAINWRIGHT: (laughs) I’ve been wanting to write this opera for many, many years and ages ago I was speaking with someone and they brought up that concept and it really stuck with me. … So I’ve known for a long time that it would be a necessary kind of element to give the opera more depth. I’ve known for a long time.

BLADE: How was the Toronto production and were you there the whole time?

WAINWRIGHT: I was there most of the time it was really fabulous. I had some of the greatest singers on the planet performing the opera with Thomas Hampson and Karita Mattila and the others were incredible too but just in terms of stature, those two are second to none. So there was that and also the audience was incredible, it sold very well. There was always an enthusiastic reaction and I have no complaints whatsoever about the experience. Now trying to get a four-act grand opera presented in other opera houses of the world is itself another herculean task, especially in the world we live in now which isn’t really opera-centric, but I’m one who kind of enjoys a fight so here we go.

BLADE: What do you know now that you didn’t know after your first opera?

WAINWRIGHT: I learned a few things. One is that an artist really has to compose what they are called upon to compose, you know? After the premiere, I kind of looked back and kind of said, “Why in God’s name did I do that?” Only because it took so long and it was such a lot of work, it cost a lot of money and I don’t know what it has to do with today or anything like that. But I realized oh my God, I was really under a kind of spell and that’s really all that I could hold onto really as an artist and all I can kind of go with. And then the piece has to really fend for itself. So I just have to remind myself that I’m doing this because it’s meant to be even though it might seem crazy. And then also I realize that along the way so much of what I’ve learned I can then communicate in other areas of my artistic life. I’m looking forward to doing that. Just the craft that one learns in writing for an orchestra and working with opera singers is astounding and I’m excited to bring that into all my other work.

BLADE: Classical music critic David Patrick Stearns wrote last year about revisions made to a Barber opera after its 1966 premiere and said, “Even though the revisions made theatrical sense by cutting extraneous information, opera is not about information. Half the time you don’t know what an opera is truly telling you until you’ve lived with it a few decades.” Your thoughts?

WAINWRIGHT: When we premiered “Hadrian,” I had to cut out practically an hour for it to fit into the constraints of union rules with the theater. So in terms of editing and so forth, that definitely had to happen and now in moving forward for other theaters, I do want to do some revisions. I do feel that an opera is a kind of a living organism that needs upkeep. That being said though, yeah, it’s a gamble and yes,  the game you’re playing with opera is the long game and all of that can only really be fully understood arguably sometimes a century later. That’s all I can say.

BLADE: “Hallelujah” (the Leonard Cohen song Wainwright covered) has really gotten overdone, almost to the point of “Imagine.” I lost count of how many skaters skated to it at the last Olympics. Are you tired of it?

WAINWRIGHT: I’ve had my ups and downs with that song for a long time. When I first performed it, it wasn’t something that I gravitated to. It was because it had become very popular from “Shrek” and that’s something I was just asked to do and did and didn’t have any emotional connection to. But then I started singing it and I started to resent it because that’s all I was known for and I actually made a concerted effort to squash that stream. But then I started to realize that I could just throw it into any situation and people were instantly on my side, so and then I became thankful for it. And then when Trump was up for election, I said I wouldn’t sing it if he won the election. It became that thing. So then he won and then I didn’t sing it and then Leonard Cohen died, so it kind of keeps coming back. I respect the song in a lot of ways. It’s not my favorite Leonard Cohen song by any means but one has to give it some credit in terms of its indomitable character that just keeps coming back and that is somewhat impressive. I owe a lot to that song as well in terms of having a real mainstream appeal. So I’m of two minds.

BLADE: Do you ever listen to your mom’s records or have a favorite?

WAINWRIGHT: I love my mom’s records, they’re great. I would probably say my personal favorite is “Dancer with Bruised Knees,” which is their second album. I have a slight bias on that one because there’s a song “First Born” that is sort of about me a little bit.

Rufus Wainwright, seen here in a vintage photo, has a soft spot for the music of his mother, Kate McGarrigle who performed as Kate & Anna McGarrigle with her sister. (Photo by Greg Gorman)

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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