From Pop Star to Opera Star

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In what may be the last we see of New York City Opera for the time being, they beleaguered company appears with the River to River Festival tonight with a free concert at the World Financial Center Winter Garden at 7pm. Headlining the cast is singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, who is joined by a cast of singers, pianist Kevin Murphy (and WQXR’s own Elliot Forrest) for an evening of song that includes excerpts from Wainwright’s first opera, Prima Donna.

The work, originally slated for the Metropolitan Opera at the onset of Peter Gelb’s tenure, is among the rumored yet as-of-now unconfirmed offerings of NYCO’s 2011-12 season. After separating from the Met—which wanted an English language libretto while Canadian-American Wainwight insisted on French—Prima Donna premiered in Manchester, UK.

For those who know about Wainwright’s musical upbringing, the folk-rock artist’s connection to the genre is unsurprising. A documentary on the making of Prima Donna shows a young Wainwright cajoling his sister and cousins into making a home-movie version of Tosca, with Wainwright playing Baron Scarpia. (“All right, Tosca, let’s go!” he leers before receiving Tosca’s fatal kiss.) In a music video for his 1998 hit “April Fool’s,” characters include Tosca, Mimi, Gilda, Cio Cio San and Carmen, with Wainwright attempting to save each of the doomed characters from their predestined fates against a chorus of poppy, Davy Jones-ish “You will believe in love."

While many opera singers have also turned pop (look no further than Renée Fleming’s recent album, Dark Hope), going from the pop realm into opera takes a bit more work. As mentioned earlier on this blog, siren songstress Tori Amos is due for a Deutsche Grammophon release this fall with the song cycle Night of the Hunters, and Barbara Streisand has her own classical album.

Not ones to shy away from the operatic (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” anyone?), Queen front man Freddie Mercury had his own foot in the opera world when his duet with Barcelonan Montserrat Caballé. "How Can I Go On?" became a hit single in 1988 and the theme song for the 1992 Summer Olympics. Vanessa Williams has performed with both Domingo and Pavarotti, the latter marking the only time an opera singer has been a musical act on Saturday Night Live.

But writing operas is a different story. Wainwright (who dressed as Verdi for the world premiere of Prima Donna) has garnered mixed reviews for his work, which—judging solely by clips made available to this writer over the last two years—deserves at the least a full New York hearing. Elvis Costello’s 2009 album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (which earned a 3.8 rating on features a taste of his in-the-works Hans Christian Andersen opera, which has been in talks and, presumably, in the works for the last six years.

Earlier this year, electro-pop artist Will Gregory, best known for being one-half of Goldfrapp, saw the premiere of his debut opera, Piccard in Space, given by the BBC Concert Orchestra as part of the Ether Festival. “There is food for thought, and moments of great excitement, but artistically the experience is some way short of stratospheric,” wrote The Guardian’s Guy Dammann of the work, a bioopera of sorts about the Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard, a contemporary of Einstein. He gave the opera three out of five stars.

What’s fascinating, however, is the number of non-classical songwriters interested in the possibilities opera presents. Especially given the revolutionary minds (for better or for worse, depending on who you ask) now in power at houses like the Met, the door seems to have opened beyond the catalogue of standards like Glass and Adams—highly talented writers to be sure, but by far not the only game in town. Perhaps Gregory hasn’t concocted the next Einstein on the Beach, nor Wainwright Nixon on the Beach—yet. But with opera opening up musically to a wider public, mirroring in a way the de-privatization of the art form in 17th-century Venice, the possibilities on offer are tantalizing.

What non-classical songwriters or composers would you like to see turn out an opera? Leave your fantasy programming in the comments below.