From Pop Star to Opera Star

Monday, June 27, 2011 - 10:39 PM

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 Pitchfork.com) 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.

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Comments [3]

Ken T from New York City

I walked out of the concert the first time I encountered Rufus Wainwright. He opened for Bryan Ferry several years ago in the theater space under Madison Square Garden. To my ears Rufus's mega-sized ego is not backed up by any discernable talent as a performer or composer. He is the only singer I have ever heard who can sing sharp AND flat simultaneously! Listen to that weird, buzzy whine he produces and you'll hear what I mean.

Oct. 08 2011 03:39 PM
James from Tennessee/Boston

@Carolyn - Unfortunately, I think it's you who is not understanding here. Wainwright's previously recorded music is exceedingly theatrical in nature, and he grew up demonstrating a passion for the operatic art form.

Particularly among American composers, you find many who "slummed it" on Tin Pan Alley or on Broadway in addition to their more "serious" work. Were they gimmicks, too?

Perhaps you could make more clear the prerequisites you would accept for a composer of a new opera being considered something besides a gimmick? Must he have a Ph.D? Have only composed opera?

Your comment reminds me of an Amazon commenter I saw who declared that no true symphony had been written since the late 19th century. Perhaps that is because he lacks discernment and needs a curator. Perhaps it is because you do that you so readily dismiss this composer?

Jun. 28 2011 01:13 PM
Carolyn from New York

Well, what you don't understand, you have to carve out to suit your own intelligence. Opera doesn't need gimmicks.

Jun. 28 2011 12:48 PM

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