With him, Wainwright says he found someone who could balance his divaish needs. “I got sick of the idea that a boyfriend has to be a show pony who can entertain. I want to be the entertaining one!” Wainwright says. “Jörn is the man-wife and Rufus is the woman-husband,” explains Wasser, who vacationed with the couple in the Caribbean in December. “Jörn does all the incredible things that the wife does, yet he’s the man, and Rufus does all the incredible things that a husband does, yet he’s the woman.”
The great thing about dating Wainwright? “You don’t need a radio anymore—he’s singing all the time, playing music in his bathrobe. He’s also an incredibly attentive and unselfish person, even though he doesn’t seem to have that persona.”
When we’re in London, in early April, I ask Wainwright how he is holding up. “When I first arrived, I felt like RoboCop or something,” he says. “Rehearsal, composition, costume”—in his solo tour, he wears a feathered, bejeweled, plunging-necklined black shroud with a seventeen-foot train that his friend Zaldy designed for him— “it was a good way to get to the next point and just pass the time in a productive manner … It’s a good thing, the beauty of music and theater, but once you mix a smidgen of death in there—it’s pretty nuts. But, uh, but—I’m very happy at the end of the day. It’s tragic happiness. Tragi-happy!”
In the tradition of his family, Wainwright seems determined—or, perhaps, resigned—to extrude every bit of grief over his mother’s death into public performance. For his solo show, the first half will be only the new album, which he wants to play uninterrupted, like a classical song-cycle. At the end, he’ll play “The Walking Song,” which his mother wrote years ago about strolling with Loudon when they were in love. “The other day,” he tells me, “I started doing it” in rehearsal, “and I completely broke down, more than I have in a long time, and everybody else did. I think the song’ll steal the show in a certain way, which I’m very happy about—because my mom’s still, you know, running my life!” The Laugh.
He’ll also play his old favorites, to please the fans. Wainwright says he’ll return to (his version of) pop for the album after Lulu. “With opera, there’s no big checks going around,” he says.
“I was her prince, her courtier; she was my lady, and I was her knight,” Wainwright says of his mother. “Thank God I’m gay, or else it would’ve been really weird.”
Still, opera is his aspiration. “The content of his songs is about love and feelings and in no way connected to rock, which was really refreshing,” says Wasser. Adds Hegarty, “He’s always had this thing about the long breath and an opera approach to music,” and now, on the new album, “he’s just going really deep into his romance.”
In writing the opera Prima Donna, Wainwright wants to popularize, and perhaps loosen up, the antique genre. It’s been a rough road. Prima Donna, set in Paris on Bastille Day 1970, is about a day in the life of Régine Saint Laurent, an imperious, insecure fading opera diva weighing a comeback after stopping singing years ago for tantalizingly undisclosed reasons. “It’s very moving and beautiful and, you know, campy as well,” he promises. But he’s trying to stay focused. “When you take up opera, you have to have all cylinders going all the time. It’s a really treacherous world. People are just waiting to stab you in the back.” The Metropolitan Opera turned down an opportunity to stage it, officially because Wainwright refused to translate it from the French.
Wainwright is still bruised from the initial go-round with Prima Donna, at the Manchester International Festival last year. First, he sparred with the original director, Daniel Kramer, an American who’s well respected in London theater, who’s since been replaced by the British director Tim Albery. Wainwright wanted a more inward, music-focused production, while Kramer wanted to theatricalize it more, says Alex Poots, who heads up the festival. “It ended up being a real battle backstage for the soul of this piece, which I won eventually,” Wainwright told the press about the clash.
But the reviews from Manchester were decidedly mixed, and Wainwright came to his premiere dressed up as Verdi, with Weisbrodt alongside him dressed as Puccini, which just incited the press further. On one hand, the Times of London called it “a love song to opera, soaked in the perennial operatic themes of loss, betrayal, delusion and nostalgia, and saturated in the musical styles of opera’s golden age.” But Lynne Walker of the U.K.’s Independent was pitiless. “Wainwright, basking in flash photography, seemed in no doubt as to who was the star of this show,” she wrote, before moving on to the work itself, calling it a “flimsy plot … spun out into a cheesy piece of full-length music theatre” and describing the music as “at best banal, at worst boring.”