Catching Up With Rufus Wainwright

5.5.2014

By Jerry Portwood

The singer discusses his latest (gay) opera commission, why Helena Bonham Carter inspires him, and the reason performing with 'slutty straight boys' was a perfect antidote to a heavy period of his life.

Photo by Sean James | Styling by Kit Scarbo | Hair and grooming by Sean James / phytohaircare

Rufus Wainwright has been on something of a reinvention tour. After the release of Out of the Game in 2012, he's continued touring and promoting the new material, including a stop in Lithuania, where we caught up with him by phone, and he explained that he'd discovered a whole new fan base.

"I’m here to finally kind of express myself in front of a very, very thankful and hungry audience of Eastern Europeans who have waited for years for me to get here," he says, with his raspy chuckle. "I hate to say it, but boy, it’s a good thing that I’m married because there are some hot guys in Eastern Europe. My god! It’s ridiculous. They’re all young, and they all love me."

He's since returned stateside (performing several sold-out concerts around the country) and has released Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright, along with Rufus Wainwright: Live from the Artists Den, a great concert video (and live album) that was recorded for the PBS series at the Church of the Ascension in Manhattan and released in March. When he's not on the road, he's been raising money to record his opera, Prima Donna along with funds for a cancer research fund set up in honor of his late mother Kate McGarrigle.

Next up: Wainwright will host a special brunch performance that includes a chat with Julie Klausner for the Vulture Festival on May 11. That's all prep for the world premiere of If I Loved You: Gentlemen Prefer Broadway - An Evening Of Love Duets, at the Luminato Festival, which was conceived by Rufus Wainwright, for one night only on Saturday, June 14 at the Sony Centre For The Performing Arts. We caught up with him to find out what Karl Lagerfeld feels about his fabulous fashion sense, why Helena Bonham Carter inspires him, and why his latest commission—about Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antony—will be the gayest opera ever.

After I watched the concert video, I wanted you to tell me about this new look. It feels like a whole new Rufus. You’re liberated from behind the piano and seem to be projecting something different.

I made that album with Mark Ronson in the studio, so that upped the ante. In terms of coolness—I had to work on my game. What happened with Mark is, I had been through the heaviest period of my life—with the birth of my amazing daughter, and the death of my amazing mother, happening kind of simultaneously—so I was a total wreck. I made Songs for LuLu, which was my darkest album to date, just me and the piano. I needed space and to make tunes with a bunch of young, slutty straight boys and go out and rock. It was somewhat of an antidote to the lugubrious universe I had created for myself. Mark helped me do that. He really is the full package: so elegant, so kind, so talented. His big problem is he’s always late, that’s about it.

We’ve recently seen Liberace have a resurrection and his fashion flamboyance celebrated by a new generation, do you think you’d ever go that far, or will you try to keep it restrained? Not that gold sequined pants are that “restrained,” of course. I know you’ve always been a fashion plate, but I wanted to talk about those amazing pants you wore for that performance. Were they a gift?

Those are Gaultier pants. I’m very fortunate to own them. I’m just going to say that I have them right now. You know, with the French it’s never quite sure what’s going on. Let’s just say that I am taking care of them at the moment. I would say "gift," but I don’t know, I don’t want to push it. They’re actually worth a lot of money.

I think also, as you get older, you lean a little more on the genius of couture to “shave” those edges somewhat. Another wonderful thing is I’ve thankfully developed some fantastic friendships with some of the greatest designers around—whether Viktor & Rolf or Marc Jacobs. So I’ve managed to keep one foot in the fashion realm. I think I’m very flamboyant, but I can also be somewhat dark and very relaxed in my presentation. I think I wear fashion very lightly on my sleeve. It certainly doesn’t dictate my career, like some people we know. But Karl Lagerfeld, who I have met a few times and is a lovely man and is certainly brilliant and intelligent, he’s actually stated once that he loves my voice and my work, but that I am the worst dressed man on the planet. [Laughs] But I wouldn’t call him the most adventurous type either. I don’t think he’s ever worn the color red. So, it’s whatever. I don’t think I care so much about it, and that’s what makes it fun. What I do is about the music.

I talked to your sister recently, and we also discussed the impact of the death of your mother, and how both of you are dealing with that in song. Is the plan that you will regularly perform some of her music on stage in your sets?

We’re now promoting this fantastic album, Sing Me the Songs, and a large portion of the proceeds go to the Kate McGarrigle Fund for cancer research. That’s a very dear project to my heart. I think my mother was one of the greatest songwriters of her era, and she is under appreciated and deserves a higher position in the pantheon of music and lyrics. Martha and I feel it’s our mission, not to mention that we own the publishing rights as well, so it’s a practical reason. But I love my mother’s work.

Let's talk about your latest opera projects. There’s been quite a few gay-themed operas that have been created and produced in the last couple of years. I know you’ve been commissioned to write your second. What was it about the Emperor Hadrian story that appealed to you?

My opera will be the grandest of all! It’s the Roman empire, four acts, choruses, dancing boys. I have never shied away from the exoticism and gilded fantabulousness of the opera world. I have no fear of incense. [Laughs] That’s why I love to incense the critics. [Laughs]

With this opera, we have Hadrian and Antony, we've got the Nile, Greece, you have the palace that Hadrian built. The story itself is so compelling and modern. I think back in that era, homosexuality was tolerated and it was part of society, but it was just a sexual act, it wasn't an emotional relationship. Hadrian and Antony were in love and it was not cool—to be in love with a man, especially when you're the emperor. I think that's very resonant; also in terms of Hadrian creating Palestine, and how that has reverberated over the years. It's the time of the pagan world going into monotheism. It's very pungent and viral. In fact, I'm surprised it hasn't been done earlier.

And you're also raising money to record your first opera, Prima Donna. Why did you go that route?

We've already raised about 30 percent of the money we need—which is great because it's very expensive to record opera. It's really not done anymore by major labels. It's going to be with the BBC orchestra, one of the greatest orchestras in the world, so that's exciting.

I think there's this perception that the opera world is this closed, monolithic, ivory tower existence. I think it's better that people can feel like they can partake in this gargantuan event and people want to learn about this stuff. I strongly feel that it's the only way the opera world will survive, if they open up and invite everybody in to the party.

At the $50,000 level, I can get a personal concert or dinner with you. Is it weird pimping yourself out that way?

Yeah, I'm comfortable with it. I've done work like that before—for charity. I like performing: I like sitting up there and making people happy.

I was also curious: In the concert, you put on a paper Helena Bonham Carter mask on for a bit and I wondered what it was about her. We've been asking people what their spirit animal is, and I wondered if she was your spirit animal in some way?

Well she is definitely a spirited animal. [Laughs] That's for sure. She's amazing. I admire her and have a slight crush on her as well. You know, what I love most about her is she's whip smart, so intelligent. She has depth. Besides being a fantastic actress and fantastic beauty, she's also really witty, intelligent, and kooky broad. And I love that about her.

So how would you answer that question: what is your spirit animal?

My spirit animal is Louise Brooks from Pandora's Box. That character she plays in the film, Lulu. That's why I wrote Songs for Lulu, she needed to be appeased.

What about your daughter, Viva: How often do you get to see her since you've been on tour and working on so many projects?

Well, she lives in California with her mother. Jorn and I get her some times in the summer and certain holidays. I also try to go to LA as much as I can so I can spend as much time as possible. Which has been interesting, because you can't help get roped in to Hollywood, even when you go to the barber and get your haircut. It's been fun hanging out in L.A. and seeing my daughter.

Are we going to see you in any films anytime soon?

We'll see… But I can say: I don't think I'll be playing Lulu anytime soon.

WATCH A CLIP FROM RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: LIVE FROM THE ARTISTS DEN:

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