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A Conversation with Rufus Wainwright

"It's more when I sing my own material that I really change."

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Whether it's the confessional cabaret-inflected pop of his own material, or his show-stealing interpretations of Leonard Cohen songs in the tribute film I'm Your Man, Rufus Wainwright seems at his best when he's at his most performative -- a strength he's increasingly played to since his 1998 self-titled debut. In fact, Wainwright's most recent musical output is the live recording Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, in which he recreates Judy Garland's 1961 "comeback" concert song-for-song, with yesteryear chestnuts like "Puttin' on the Ritz" and "Over the Rainbow" brought to swelling life with a full orchestra. And he's currently working on an opera -- yet more evidence of a pliable, shape-shifting performer, one who, as a kid, was equally at home pretending to be Dorothy, on good days, and on the bad, the Wicked Witch.

Were the Judy Garland tribute concert and the Leonard Cohen concert at all similar, from your perspective?
No, not at all. I'm Your Man was a total Hal Willner creation, who made the film and who came up with the idea for the concert. That was more about the group experience, no stars there! Whereas the Judy Garland thing was really about me, Rufus, taking this mantle and being in the center of the storm, and taking on that kind of Hollywood grandiosity. So I consider them two very different, but equally important excursions into the world of show business.

"Show business" as opposed to...?
I think Leonard Cohen's work is much more introverted, and about the interior life of the poet, and kinda mysterious in that way. Whereas the songs of Judy Garland and her performance style is just brash entertainment of American style. Very energetic and confident. So it was a nice way to play both sides.

Do you adopt a different persona when you're interpreting someone else's music?
I just try to do it well, and whatever it takes for that to happen is what I do. On the other hand, I think when I perform my own music, at that point I do morph or transform into an artist, and into almost a kind of mirror of my soul, and I do leave the room physically, in my head, and try to discover who I am. So it's more when I sing my own material that I really change.

On this tour, you're performing solo?
I'm basically gearing up for my next album, which is going to be a piano/voice solo album, only because I think I've made so many huge [sounding] records in the past, that it's time to kind of get intimate. There aren't going to be any Judy Garland songs -- I kind of do that as another incarnation. I've done a lot of solo shows over the years, and there are certain songs which have always worked great, like "Foolish Love" or "Beauty Mark," from my first album up to now, and those I'm kind of resurrecting. I think it's a good way for me to get back in touch with my songwriting spirit, and my ability to just face the piano, and discover new worlds that way. As opposed to going out with orchestras, and thinking about, you know...Hollywood.

...or your opera?
I'm working on it, it's called Prima Donna -- it's a day in the life of a famous opera singer. It's about that whole diva personality. It's not anyone specific; it's just this character that I've invented. And I'm writing it in French. I intend very strongly to ease my way into the opera world, and my goal is to eventually, after many years, resurrect the art form and really be probably the first bona fide great American opera composer. Who only writes opera.

That seems like a tricky transition.
Oh yeah, it's not an easy leap. My main issue with opera is that, yes, there are some great American operas and modern operas, but what did happen in the 20th century is the whole art form was really taken over by the classical world -- by the sorta heavy, intellectual, avant-garde academia. And that's great, there are incredible works that I could never never equal. But there is this other side of opera that is far more popular, and really lyrical and really about the characters -- and about pleasing the masses -- that has sorta been left in the dust. All of the great operas still sell out -- the old ones. And I think there's something to be said for investigating that disparity.

Rufus Wainwright with Bill Deasy. 8 p.m. Mon., Jan. 3 (doors at 7 p.m.). Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead, 510 E. 10th Ave, Munhall. $32.50-49.50. 412-462-3444 or www.homesteadlibrary.org

Puttin' on the ritz: Rufus Wainwright
  • Puttin' on the ritz: Rufus Wainwright

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