Rufus Wainwright on Music, Marriage and His PIFA Show in Philadelphia

Rufus Wainwright in white suit seated at Steinway piano
Rufus Wainwright plays The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on April 21

When Rufus Wainwright visits the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA) on Sunday, April 21, he’ll perform a program singular to this fest, a show he won’t repeat during his current tour. He’ll start with a 45-minute version of his debut opera Prima Donna, followed by songs from his Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall concert.  What better name for this mash-up than Prima! Rufus! Judy!. I interviewed Wainwright about his PIFA show and topics including marriage, ambition, and the state of pop music.

Previous to this most recent tour, Wainwright was busying himself promoting his 2012 album, Out of the Game, produced by Mark Ronson. “For me, that was a pop album,” says Wainwright. “Until you get out there and hear what kids are listening to on the radio.” That’s when he begins to laugh. “Suddenly you’re reminded that we are in a very dry spell.”

Wainwright then admits that any time you release a record into the current marketplace – whether it’s a pop album or a full blown opera – that you need to face it all with blind faith. “You have to have the right ambition and drive to do this. In retrospect, you have to become nuts.”

For him, Out of the Game was about making music that would achieve what he calls “worldly success.” Here, Wainwright mentions that throughout his career, he’s been so dedicated to more “serious sensibilities” and working in genres such as opera (“that’s whole hog serious”) that he’s forgotten to look at pop’s lighter side. “Once I got older and realized that I had four mortgages to pay, you also want a certain amount of money,” says Wainwright. “Not to be too harsh about it, but that’s a reality. And to be truthful, I’ve done everything else, including jazz stuff, opera, Judy, a lot of movie soundtracks. It’s all a coloring book and I want to use every color.”

Along with having those mortgages, Wainwright is a newly-married man (to curator Jörn Weisbrodt) with a child (Viva Katherine, born to Leonard Cohen's daughter, Lorca).

“Marriage is fantastic. It’s not easy per se, it’s hard work. But there’s just something different about professing your love to someone in such a public manner. I wouldn’t want to get too comfortable,” Wainwright laughs. “But maybe I’m this consummate optimist. I do believe that once you express something and will it out there, it will most likely try to occur. I think marriage is very much like that. If you say that 'I want this to work and that I love this person, this is good for me and that everyone here is a family,' most forces will join with you to make it happen. You just have to believe.”

Talking about working with PIFA on its time-machine themed 2013 event, Wainwright jokes that as a “fairly well-known” person, he was anxious to play the festival and get his debut opera played. “Some people say it’s a dying art form, even a dead art form. I don’t subscribe to that of course. For me, opera is the answer to a lot of questions as to where the music business is going. But with that, you really have to get out there and flog your wares. I’m willing to do that with my babies. I’m a stage mother. You have to go out there and make it happen. You can’t just write it then retreat.”

With that, Wainwright will bring a team of opera singers to perform 45 minutes worth of Prima Donna highlights backed by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. After a brief intermission, Wainwright will perform some of his favorites from the Judy at Carnegie Hall show that he first made famous in 2006. Wainwright mentions that the songs from Judy happen to be some of the greatest songs ever written – clever lyrics meshed with timeless melodies. “Judy thought the same thing of those songs. But as an entire show, I don’t ever think that I’ll do that whole thing again,” he says in regard to his Garland epic.

“It is extremely taxing,” says Wainwright. “And I really wanted it to be a one-time deal, a special event – not a circus. And this will be the first time that I ever paired the two concerts into one event. Talk about time travel. From opera to Judy, you’re really going through a lot of periods.”

For Prima! Rufus! Judy! tickets and info:

Photo: Tina Tyrell

Posted on Saturday, April 20, 2013