TORONTO — Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright says he’s faced some skeptics as he crosses over from the pop world to the land of arias with his debut opera, “Prima Donna,” which made its North American debut Monday night.
“I think when I first started this process, a lot of people were a little bit, I don’t know, they just didn’t think I could pull it off, just me alone,” the acclaimed, Montreal-raised musician said in a recent interview.
“I think they thought at a certain point that they would come in and bring in an orchestrator and kind of take my baby and bring it up themselves because they know what to do.
“But as it turns out I kind of came in with everything fully formed and ready to go and they were a little shocked.”
“Prima Donna” — which is in the city for the Luminato arts festival — is written entirely in French by Wainwright, who also composed the score.
The story is set in 1970 Paris, where an opera diva named Regine Saint Laurent (British soprano Janis Kelly) attempts to reclaim her title as one of the world’s greatest sopranos.
Most of the scenes take place in Regine’s huge apartment, a once opulant and thriving home that’s now dismal and fading like her career. The Toronto cast is rounded out by Charlotte Ellett, who plays the maid, Colin Ainsworth as a young journalist and Gregory Dahl as Regine’s butler.
“It’s aesthetically beautiful in every single way possible,” Toronto student Erin Rutherford, a longtime fan of Wainwright’s, said at the premiere that was attended by the recording artist and got a standing ovation at the end. “Visually and lyrically, I love it.”
“I thought it was wonderful,” said Sabina Green, who runs an adult education business that conducts courses in opera. “We got all wound up in it and it was terrific and good for him. I’m proud to be a Canadian.”
Elaine Cohen travelled from Phoenix, Ariz., to see the show and said while she didn’t feel Wainwright had pioneered anything new in opera, she enjoyed the music.
“I think it was brave of Wainwright to take on opera because he’s going to be compared with classic composers and that’s a lot to take on.”
When the Manchester International Festival commissioned “Prima Donna” for its world premiere last summer, Wainwright worked with conductor Pierre-Andre Valade, who “was very academic and very from a certain French school — and we’re not talking romantic French, we’re talking very modern,” said Wainwright.
“We didn’t really click musically,” continued the flamboyant performer, who was introduced to opera as a child by his parents, the late folk musician Kate McGarrigle, and Grammy-winning musician Loudon Wainwright.
“That was very difficult, when you have an opera out there and someone conducting it you don’t totally trust. So we’ve replaced him with a fantastic conductor who totally gets the piece.”
The latest conductor is Robert Houssart, an up-and-coming talent who was born in Holland and raised in England. Also new to the piece since its Manchester showing is the director, Tim Albery, who lives in Toronto and has worked at major venues around the world, including the Canadian Opera Company. Last year he staged another opera at Luminato, “The Children’s Crusade” by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer.
“We get along like a house on fire,” Wainwright, 36, said of Albery. “Whereas before, you know, I got along like an opera house on fire with my previous director.”
Houssart and Albery started working with Wainwright on “Prima Donna” for its London showing last April.
Albery says Wainwright, a two-time Juno Award winner who has released eight albums, has been “a really good colleague.” “He was brilliant: sat in rehearsal all of the time and gave me good notes and we laughed quite a lot.
“I think the production really tries to honour the work, you know. It was a really good experience.”
Albery came on board “Prima Donna” after receiving requests from both Luminato and the opera’s designer, Antony McDonald. Having already heard a bit of Wainwright’s pop music, he says he “wasn’t that surprised” to hear he’d written an opera.
“He writes narrative within the songs so therefore whenever you hear a song by a writer who writes narrative, you think, ’Yup, they could write a musical or an opera,’ because they understand or they’re interested in narrative.”
“Prima Donna” doesn’t have a set destination once it closes at Luminato on June 19, but Albery said there are discussions to possibly bring it to two or three other places.
In the meantime, Wainwright isn’t in a hurry to write another opera.
“We’ll see,” he said when asked if he’d like to pen another one. “I would. It really depends.
“I’d like to take one more crack at the pop dragon and see what that entails, but we’ll see. I still have a little more work to do in the radio world.”
Wainwright will also be performing two solo concerts at Luminato to promote his new album, “All Days Are Nights: Song for Lulu.”