Singing Monkey: Rufus Wainwright
mocks ‘lowbrow’ tag
as he blurs lines of opera and pop
2005 Newsday Feature
The Chicken Littles of the classical-music press are spooking readers with their versions of the sky-is-falling yarn. Audiences are graying; the classical-record industry has tanked; institutions are in a death spiral; yadda, yadda, yadda.
While there is truth to all of these assertions, opera and classical music aren’t going out without a fight. A case in point is New York City Opera’s Opera-for-All Festival. The company recently offered every seat in the house for its upcoming Friday performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for $25. Tickets sold out in days.
Thursday’s Opera-for-All concert also is standing-room-only. It features City Opera stars, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and the East Village Opera Company, a rock band specializing in souped-up versions of classic arias.
“We are determined to bring a new audience to opera,” said City Opera artistic director Paul Kellogg. “If we don’t, then I’m afraid the form will wither and die.”
Opera is alive and well in Wainwright’s music. Often described as “poperatic,” the 32-year-old Montreal-raised New Yorker straddles the worlds of classical and rock, cabaret and folk. Schubert, Cole Porter and Leonard Cohen are a few of the names invoked in the raves that greeted Wainwright’s self-titled debut CD in 1998, as well as Poses (2002) and Want One (2003).
Wainwright described Want Two, his latest CD, as “more operatic” than Want One—itself an opulent, intricately crafted disc that inspired comparisons to such difficult-to-categorize albums as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Where Want One included a song that burst into cheeky quotations of Ravel’s “Boléro,” Want Two opens with a setting of the Agnus Dei prayer that combines a trilling vocal line with string orchestra and a droning cimbalom. It brings to mind troubadour songs, the crunchy pop of avant-garde diva Brigitte Fontaine and traditional Asian music.
Aiming for the heart
Want Two gave some pop writers fits with other hoity-toity cuts, such as the faux-rococo “Little Sister” and “Memphis Skyline,” which unfurls with the mellow rapture of a Richard Strauss aria.
Wainwright, who has recorded a Bizet duet with David Byrne and sometimes opens his concerts with songs by Berlioz, was my guest for Verdi’s Otello last season at the Metropolitan Opera. I asked him what words like “operatic,” “pop” and “art” meant to him.
“Well, I think anything that’s effective is art,” he said. “What comes from the heart, goes to the heart: That’s the only rule I go by. There are ‘pop’ things that I despise for being made for marketing purposes, but there are ‘art’ things that I find way too cold and intellectual. It’s ‘that which is moving’ that gets me.” His words echo those of Verdi, whom Wainwright has called a role model. “The question is not whether music belongs to a system,” Verdi wrote, “but whether it is good or bad. That question is clear and simple and, above all, legitimate.”
Reminded of that pragmatic view, Wainwright nodded. “I love how Verdi entertained the public on the one hand, and at the same time gave them food for thought. He always roots against injustice, whether it’s with the Jews in Nabucco or even here in Otello. It starts off so warlike and militaristic, but all of that fades away quickly once human emotions come into play.”
Wainwright’s career exemplifies the assertion by blogger and critic Greg Sandow that “classical music and pop—in the real world (as opposed to the classical-music ghetto)—they penetrate each other.” Wainwright reportedly hankers for a megahit, but commercial concerns seemed far from his mind at the Met. He crowed that Ben Heppner, scoring a triumph in the title role of Otello, is a fellow Canadian. At intermission, he regaled admirers with tales of Rossini’s hijinks and confided that he is a big fan of Richard Strauss. “If, well, when I write operas, I will probably work from a Straussian model,” he said. “I love the way he writes about subtleties of human interaction.”
An echo of Verdi
Wainwright, the son of folk goddess Kate McGarrigle and satirical singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, has had little formal training. “I was at McGill University in music for a couple of years, but I basically failed everything. I envy people who can get that kind of education, but I think I was programmed to be a singing monkey!”
Wainwright’s quip brings to mind the fact that Verdi, too, has long been dismissed as “lowbrow” by minders of the classical canon—a musical hierarchy that was constructed in the 19th century in part to serve the cause of German nationalism. As one cultural historian has noted, “lowbrow” was originally a racial slur, designating the supposedly lower, simian foreheads of southern and eastern European peoples.
The modernist humbug whereby respectable music must go down like castor oil also has tended to devalue beautifully wrought melodies loved by millions—like those of Wainwright and Verdi.
Nonetheless, Wainwright’s music made it to Carnegie Hall last year when baritone Nathaniel Webster programmed two of his songs for his Weill Recital Hall debut. Webster’s pellucid enunciation did greater justice than the composer’s own nasal swoon to the lyrics of “In a Graveyard”: “Worldly sounds of endless warring / were for just a moment silent stars. / Worldly boundaries of dying / were for just a moment never ours.”
Blurring the lines
“I wanted to show that the line between what a singer-songwriter does and what someone like Schubert or Ned Rorem did is really blurred,” Webster said. “That’s real poetry, and the harmonic elements are very classical.”
Not all classical musicians share Webster’s estimation of Wainwright’s work. “A glorified minstrel,” scoffed organist and Juilliard professor Paul Jacobs. But Jacobs’ assessment seems to me wonderfully apt. In ages past, minstrels moved between the street and princely courts, juggling and busking and riffing on lofty troubadour poems.
Lines were less sharply drawn before classical music became a swanky mausoleum. “So much music when it was first done was controversial, and they thought it would never last,” Webster recalled wistfully.
Who knows: If the sky fails to fall and opera can credibly claim to be an art form for all, perhaps it will be thanks in part to lowbrow musicians like Wainwright.
GETTING HOOKED ON OPERA
Rufus Wainwright and the two co-founders of the East Village Opera Company named recordings that made them operaphiles.
Joan Sutherland: The Greatest Hits (Decca): “‘Caro nome’ from Verdi’s Rigoletto was one of the first opera recordings that I became enamored of. Opera hit me fast and furious: One day I hated it, and the next day I was sold.”
Berlioz, Les Nuits d’été, sung by Régine Crespin (Decca): “I remember driving around in my car, and when ‘L’Absence’ from ‘Les Nuits d’été’ came on the radio, it was like time stood still. It utterly transfixed me.”
Verdi, Don Carlo, Carlo Maria Giulini conducting (EMI): “Verdi has an incredible moral sense, and this is definitely one of my favorites. I always relate to Princess Eboli: the lover scorned, the repentant sinner, the jealous but compassionate woman.”
Maria Callas, Puccini Arias (EMI): “Callas seems like the first rock star of opera—an image-conscious babe who left it all on the stage. I love ‘Un bel dì’ from Madama Butterfly because of its beautiful melody.”
Mozart, The Magic Flute, Karl Böhm conducting (DG): “The ‘Pa-Pa-Pa-Papagena’ duet stuck with me as an 8-year-old when my parents dragged me to the opera. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s version doesn’t rank among the best Papagenos, but it was good enough for me.”
Puccini, Turandot, Zubin Mehta conducting (Decca): “Luciano Pavarotti’s recording of ‘Nessun dorma’ would convert anyone into an opera lover.”