I’ve only seen two operas in my life (not counting rock operas)–Carmen at the Met in NY and the Sunday matinee performance of the Manchester International Festival’s debut and today’s great thing:
91. Rufus Wainwright’s PRIMA DONNA
So, I might not be the world’s foremost authority on what constitutes a good opera. In fact, what I do know about opera is probably only thanks to Bugs Bunny cartoons and Rufus Wainwright’s previous output, which has often been called operatic–critics even inventing a new word for it– “popera”. His lush albums take the listener to emotional geography that top-40 radio just can’t touch. Undoubtedly, I will be adoring Rufus’ music in future blogs. But, for once, I’m going to be topical and only address his debut work in what seems to be his most treasured and revered art form.
Before I left for the theatre that day, I watched a BBC documentary on Wainwright called “Imagine”. It confirmed much of what I already knew about Wainwright: opera had a huge impact on his life, his current boyfriend is German, and he speaks fluent French, but it also lent some insight into what he hoped to create with PRIMA DONNA. Feeling that people expected it to be a contemporary piece, as far as musical composition goes (perhaps in the style of TOMMY or something , he gave himself the extra challenge of keeping the music in a classical vein (though it is set in 1970’s Paris). One concern he had about the genre is that its appreciators were dying out. Most people today look at opera solely from a historical point of view. Even his admirers sort of see this as a noble ambition rather than something terribly relevant.
The plots of operas are like that of Greek myth. Drama doesn’t get much higher…what with all the patricide, matricide, and fratricide. Most people just don’t relate to the characters and their problems. Today’s folks would much rather just watch Tila Tequila spend eight weeks deciding who she wants to get her picture taken with.
Having seen the show yesterday, I feel like I can appreciate the opera a bit more now. What it provides is complete escapism. I’ll NEVER have the same problems that a Parisian prima donna faces…but I can wonder at her world and comprehend the very satisfying moral at the end of the story.
A bit about the actual event. We arrived at The Palace theatre–a lovely, ornate venue in central Manchester–and found that Rufus was in the lobby allowing a few pics to be snapped. Karey was rueful that we didn’t bring the camera but I wasn’t so bothered. It’s not like I was going to ask for a picture and then Roofie and I would be besties on Facebook or something, sending each other cyber-hugs and joining each other’s Mafia. The ONLY regret I have about not getting a snap is that now I have no photographic evidence of what he was wearing yesterday. With a full beard, turned up pants, a seer-sucker type patchwork jacket and a top hat, he looked like some kind of hobo clown that jumped off the rails at Fire Island.
There is the distinct possibility that this was simply another costume that, in my opera-ignorance, I haven’t recognized. (See this piece about opening night from the NYTimes review):
MANCHESTER, England — Before the premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s first opera, “Prima Donna,” as part of the Manchester International Festival at the Palace Theater on Friday evening, Mr. Wainwright dropped hints that he would show up costumed as a famous operatic figure. Sure enough, while a crowd milled in the lobby before the performance, Mr. Wainwright arrived meticulously made up as Verdi, in a formal 19th-century black suit, complete with white silk scarf, black top hat and a bushy beard grown for the occasion. Mr. Wainwright’s companion, Jorn Weisbrodt, a German theater director, was dressed as a young Puccini in a cream-colored summer suit and a straw hat. The crowd erupted with applause, and lights flashed as people took pictures.
Anyway, back to the show. I’d bought my tickets early. So, we had terrific seats (3rd row back in the centre). Orchestra warmed up, the first thing I saw after the lush gold-tassled red curtain was pulled up was the minimal but striking and beautiful set which depicts the decor and furnishings of opera singer Regine St. Laurent’s penthouse apartment in Paris. Important stuff, this. In capable hands, the art direction and stage and lighting design can definitely set your impression for the show.
Whilst this opera may not offer a cast of thousands, it is a simpler piece dealing with one main character really, the performances were undoubtedly the highlight of the production. Scotland’s Janis Kelly was pitch-perfect (pun kinda intended) as Madame Regine St. Laurent. Kelly has been performing in opera for several years and has a reputation as a solid performer who has never been given the opportunity to enjoy a diva moment. Well, here it is.
She’s also kind of hot in ‘I hope I look that good when I’m that age’, kind of way. Just saying. Here’s a link to an interview from The Telegraph with PRIMA DONNA’S prima donna: interview with Janis Kelly
The other stand-out performance was given by Bedfordshire native Rebecca Bottone, astounding my eardrums as the sparrow-like maid, Marie. Marie offers Regine comfort and loyalty (which she desperately needs as the only other characters are a villainous gay butler, a mute footman, and a star-fucking journalist). This relationship, which I enjoyed putting a kind of lesbian spin on, in my head, actually represents a wonderful bond between two women who are both surrounded by abusive leeches of men. It reminds me of Rufus’ “Damned Ladies” track off of his first album. The song educates the listener that if you’re a leading lady in an opera, you’re bound to get the short end of the stick by the fall of the curtain. So, in other words, look out Desdemona–he’s behind you!!!
As far as the music goes, I’d comment that I enjoyed the experience as a whole and that the score felt like a spoke in the wheel. Being in a hall that was built for music, watching seasoned performers enact a brand new work, seeing one of my favorite songwriters ever sitting in the same audience that I sat in as he watched the birth of his art all contributed to my enjoyment. Do I feel the need to run out and buy the score? Not particularly. Let me reiterate at this point that I am NOT an opera aficionado and my unlearned ear is undoubtedly contributing to the slight detachment I feel towards the music. I also find that I need to hear a new piece of music more than once to let it sink in. This is especially the case with opera music. It’s beautiful and complicated and to love it in its entirety takes more patience than most typically give to music. It’s not as easy and hooky as pop. This is also, however, why it’s able to convey emotion that reaches beyond the standard ‘I take you to the candy shop. I let you lick the lollipop’ variety. There were moments that were grand and moments that were absolutely eye-drenching. Anyway, a second listen if you will.
The only clip I could find online is here. It’s from a concert he did almost a year ago in Paris and he charmingly stumbles through it a bit.
Yep. That did it. That’s good stuff.
Reviews have been mixed, some glowing and appreciative of Wainwright’s career as a whole…others almost as bitchy as the man himself–calling the plot thin and the music banal. Thin and banal…maybe on opposite day. Zing! Take that critics. Regardless of what the professional opera snobs have to say, I feel lucky that I got to see it in its premiere weekend. It’s also had a mind-expanding effect on me–I’d be willing to give more opera a listen now–which, I believe is one of the goals that Wainwright had when writing this debut. Rufus Wainwright, you brilliant queen, I vow to pay better attention when Bugs dons that Brunhilde chestplate and learn to respect the composer and not just the cartoon.