This weekend, Rufus Wainwright premiered his French-language opera, Prima Donna, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to a packed crowd that included Yoko Ono and Anjelica Houston.
Which begs the question: what other pop star could get away with (a) writing a French-language opera and (b) calling it Prima Donna?
Well, if anyone can pull it off, it’s Wainwright. The Canadian king of cabaret pop has always had a flair for the dramatic. He loves penned-in-cursive lyrics about cigarettes and peach trees and angels on high.
Fashion-wise, he’ll gladly trade the traditional for the elaborately feathered. And, according to the recent documentary Prima Donna, he’s always loved opera. He’s been listening to it since he was a teenager, casting his sister and his cousins in elaborate versions of Tosca, which he filmed with the family camcorder.
So when the Metropolitan Opera first suggested that he might submit a libretto, he composed one with Bernadette Colomine. (When the Met insisted that they stage the opera in English, Wainwright took it to the NYC Opera, which took it to BAM.) Loosely inspired by the life of Maria Callas, it’s about an aging opera star named Régine Saint Laurent, who’s hiding out in Paris in the 1970s, anxiously preparing for her comeback after losing her voice six years previously.
“One of my favorite things that I like to say now is that I relate a lot to Mozart,” Wainwright recently told EW.com. “Not so much in terms of the genius factor. More in terms of the dead factor. It’s so, so laborious and time-consuming and emotionally draining. You can’t skimp on the work, whether it’s the first violin part or the heartstrings.”
The opera’s also a pretty hard sell, even for your average Wainwright fan. (I should know. I’ve only seen one opera, Tosca, and even now, I couldn’t tell you what distinguishes it from other operas. The death? The betrayals? All the singing about death and betrayals?) So I attended the Brooklyn premiere of Prima Donna with one question in mind: Should you spend your night listening to rising-star tenors and sopranos, delivering hard-bellowed odes to “faded glory” and “passionate love”—in French?
The answer? As Verdi would’ve said, Hell yes. If you don’t speak “European,” don’t worry: super-titles above the stage translate what everyone’s singing. Besides, from the moment the curtains open, Wainwright only speaks in the international language of diva. Which is to say that, over the course of two and a half hours, he cranks the drama ALL THE WAY UP.
The story begins on Bastille Day, as Régine (who’s played by Melody Moore) prepares to meet André (Taylor Stayton), a journalist who wants to interview her about reprising her most famous role after a long hiatus. And, later, the story ends with fireworks. Literally. In between, a cheek is slapped. A tiara is donned. Roses are spilled across the floor. Emotions swing wildly between two moods: wistful tearfulness and actual, bosom-heaving sobbing. No one on stage—not even Régine’s sad peasant girl of a maid—ever stops looking French and fabulous.
Is any of this ironic? Well, Wainwright certainly plays Prima Donna with a wink. In one scene, a vicious exchange between Régine and her butler ends only when the butler stops to look in the mirror and fix his hair. In another scene, Régine autographs recordings of her greatest performances, one after another, pausing each time to deliver an exaggeratedly morose declaration: This will be the last autograph I’ll ever give! No wait, this one will be the last autograph I’ll ever give! Sure, it’s tragic. But it’s also very funny.
Not to say that Wainwright’s anything less than ultra serious about the opera. Musically, there are moments in Prima Donna that offer just enough minor-key heart-punching to qualify as devastating. After listening to Régine deliver a soaring aria from Aliénor d’Aquitaine—the signature performance that made her famous long ago, a lovers’ duet that takes place in a garden—I saw the older woman next to me wiping her eyes.
Elsewhere, Wainwright nods to Carmen and Madam Butterfly. (There is absolutely nothing “pop” about this opera. Anyone looking for a guitar solo should search Netflix for “pinball wizard” instead.) Indeed, he’s so respectful of the great masters that when he arrived for the U.K. premiere of Prima Donna in Manchester, he was dressed as Verdi in a formal 19th-century black suit, white silk scarf, and black top hat. His partner, the German theater director Jorn Weisbrodt, was dressed as Puccini.
Being a prima donna himself, Wainwright obviously feels deep empathy for his heroine. Listening to Régine, a fading queen with a deep love of all things high-theatrical, it’s easy to hear Wainwright’s voice. She worships youth and beauty, flirts with handsome young men (especially if they happen to be journalists), enjoys nothing more than listening to her own best records and thinking about how fabulous she was in her prime.
Her greatest fear is that her best work might be behind her. At one moment, parading around the room in a sequined gown, she confesses that when she was young and arrogant, she loved to face off with the classical masters, but now, older and less sure of herself, she’s terrified of that challenge. Reading the early reviews of Prima Donna, some of which were surprisingly cruel, you can bet that Wainwright understands what she’s talking about.
But that’s also what makes Prima Donna so compelling. Really, by the end of the two and a half hours, anyone with a heart and a huge affection for sequins can relate to what Régine’s feeling. It’s the hope that you’ll have one great moment in your life, and the fear that you’ll spend the rest of your days trying to recapture it. Watching Régine on stage, slowly realizing that she’s been reduced from the world’s greatest prima donna to a sad, lonely figure who’s completely lost her voice, my friend Drew turned to me and whispered, “It’s weird that we’re watching this right after Whitney Houston’s funeral.” And I thought of Whitney Houston, and every other prima donna who disappeared before she was ready (and, let’s be honest, prima donnas are never ready), when I heard Régine’s last words in the opera.
In the final scene, she’s standing on her balcony, watching the Bastille Day fireworks explode in the sky, singing very slowly and mournfully in French. The words are something to the effect of: The fireworks are over. It happened so fast! But that’s the thing with fireworks. For a while, they’re kind of amazing. And then, just as quickly, they’re gone.
Sean Lennon, Rufus Wainwright cover a Madonna song at Occupy Wall Street