Pop star-turned-opera composer Rufus Wainwright isn’t just any Prima Donna.
PRIMA DONNA by Rufus Wainwright, directed by Tim Albery. Presented by Luminato at the Elgin (189 Yonge). Opens Monday (June 14) and runs to June 19, Monday, Wednesday and Friday-Saturday 7:30 pm. $50-$200. 416-872-1111. See listings.
Behind the scenes of Rufus Wainwright's first opera, Prima Donna, is another operatic drama.[rssbreak]
Tragedy, comedy and conflict followed the French-language work all the way to its North American debut at Luminato.
"It's been quite a full-bodied experience on so many levels," says Wainwright of Prima Donna's production. "The physical task of mounting an opera is gargantuan."
While the pop singer was in the midst of writing the libretto, his mother, McGarrigle Sister Kate, was diagnosed with a rare form of terminal cancer. The traumatized Wainwright rushed to mount the opera before she passed away.
"I was battling an emotional war," he says, "which I considered I won, since she saw the opera." McGarrigle accompanied her daughter, Rufus's sister Martha Wainwright, to the premiere in Manchester in July 2009.
His mother had been a muse for Wainwright since his very first album, and naturally she also appears in Prima Donna.
The story is inspired by the life of Maria Callas, the extraordinary and famously temperamental Greek-American soprano. But much of it can be traced back to Wainwright's own life.
The lead character, for instance, comes from small-town Quebec, like his mother.
"The women [in Prima Donna] are warm; the men are quite cold," says Wainwright, who kicks off his North American tour with concerts June 15 and 17 at the Elgin. That theme of underwhelming male characters is something of a Wainwright hallmark.
"I grew up in a matriarchal family. I can't say guys have thrilled me too much. And being a gay man, I can really attest to that." He pauses dramatically. "Being attracted to them makes it worse!"
Isn't Wainwright is a bit of a prima donna himself?
"Of course I have an ego, as everyone knows," he readily admits.
Wainwright went through two high-profile disputes during the production. The first was with New York's Metropolitan Opera.
"I was commissioned by the Met. [Met general manager] Peter Gelb didn't want it in French, and he said if we put in French he wouldn't produce it. And I said, ‘Adios, amigos.'"
Wainwright walked away from the Met and joined up with the Manchester International Festival. Then came a fight with the show's first director, Daniel Kramer.
After the opening in Manchester, Wainwright replaced Kramer, an up-and-coming American director, with Toronto-based Tim Albery. Wainwright remains a bit tetchy about Kramer's departure.
"If perhaps he had been a little less insecure about my status as a pop star and trusted me more as a collaborator, and hadn't been so concerned about the limelight being taken away from him...," he says. "But it became a war."
Elsewhere, he affronted the opera establishment by showing up at La Scala in Milan in drag. The drama of a flamboyant pop star trying his hand at a classical music tradition turned into a "500-car pileup," Wainwright now says.
But out of all that comes a lifelong dream fulfilled, says Wainwright, who mounted a pyjama-clad version of Tosca at age 13.
"I've been wanting to do this for a long time. And I want to continue to do it. It'll take a while before I write a masterpiece. But you gotta start somewhere."