Il Divo

Rufus Wainwright, before performing at the Rose Bar in New York.Photo: Edward Keating

Three hours before he is to play an invitation-only show at the Gramercy Park Hotel’s Rose Bar, Rufus Wainwright is a little frantic. It’s March 15, and he’s leaving in the morning for Montreal, followed by London, where he’s launching a world tour as well as attending the opening of his French-language opera, Prima Donna. He hasn’t finished packing. The Rose Bar is a special event to give the tastemakers a cozy taste of his ruminative, classically informed new album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, which he recorded while his mother, Kate McGarrigle, was ill with cancer.

Back in December, McGarrigle, Rufus, his singing sister Martha, as well as sundry other members of their musical clan, both related and unrelated, did their Christmas jamboree in London. There, as Martha plaintively sang the opening lines of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Kate—whose onstage exuberance belied her fragility—cracked, “No, you won’t.” She and Rufus were unusually close. She died in January.

And now this? “It’s more important to keep moving at this point and tread water,” Wainwright says. “If you stop, there’s a chance you’ll go under.”

In a few hours, he’s back on the small, rose-strewn stage, framed by a baronial fireplace that seems to both unnerve and amuse him. Wainwright’s shoes sparkle, like the crowd: Susan Sarandon, Drew Barrymore, Scarlett Johansson, Alan Cumming, Christian Siriano, Renée Fleming. He jokes that “I feel like I’m in Alice in Wonderland and I better be good for the Queen.” But he can’t resist adding, “Well, there’s a few queens here tonight.”

Plunging into the songs—the album is just him on piano—he warns that he’s still learning to perform many of them. The first, called “Who Are You, New York?” (“Saw you on the corner / Saw you in the park / Saw you on the platform of Grand Central station … ”), fills the room with his big, sonorous tenor. The music is heavier than the songs that made him famous: As if to emphasize that fact, he follows up with three Shakespeare sonnets he set to music for a theater piece by the avant-garde director Robert Wilson.

Then he plays “The Dream,” an epic number of love and loss that cries out for big pop orchestration, which, on the album, Wainwright miraculously wrings out of the piano. But live, he stumbles, making amusingly tortured faces. He plays so far up the keyboard that his mouth runs to the right of the microphone, muting him. When he finishes, the room applauds the effort. “Whatever,” he drawls.

Wainwright, his friends often say, can only be understood in the context of his family. “They just strike me as an aristocracy, a royal family,” says the musician Thomas Bartlett (who performs under the name Doveman), a collaborator who played at the Christmas show and recently recorded an album of Edith Piaf covers with Martha. “They’re usually the most compelling people in the room, and they know it.”

His mother, Kate, came from the singing McGarrigles from Montreal, while his father, Loudon Wainwright III, was the Westchester-raised son of a longtime Life magazine editor. Loudon was once compared to Bob Dylan for his blunt, acerbic folk songs, but while he never became nearly that big, he’s still the only family member to have a single on the American pop charts: “Dead Skunk,” back in 1972. The couple divorced in the mid seventies, and McGarrigle raised Rufus and Martha.

“We’d go out to a bar,” says artist Walt Cassidy, formerly the club kid Walt Paper, an early friend of Wainwright’s, “and Rufus’s mom and sister would be there, and if there happened to be a stage or a musical instrument, forget it—they’d kick the other band off the stage and take over the equipment and do a show.”

“It’s an eccentric family where everyone has a role to play, and Rufus is the little prince,” says singer Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, a friend of and sometime collaborator with the Wainwrights. “He’s always had a very strong sense of his own destiny.”

A lot of Wainwright’s talent, and confidence, came from his mother. “I was her prince, her medieval courtier; she was my lady, and I was her knight,” Wainwright says. “I mean, thank God I’m gay, or else it would’ve been really weird.”

The two had a lot in common. “We both have this never-ending hunger for the stage,” he says. “We have to constantly create and put our mark on things and make a statement. In her last years, when she was not in the best health, she’d go onstage and perform and walk offstage and look twenty years younger.”

Rufus Wainwright “once said that he was his mother’s husband,” says his aunt Anna McGarrigle, who sang all her life alongside her sister in sweet, nunlike harmony. “She was the boss, the life force” of the family. “She was a trouper—nothing would get in the way of her doing what she needed to, even if the world was falling apart around her—and I think Rufus is the same way.” Anna doubts she’ll sing again now that Kate is gone.

Janis Kelly as Régine Saint Laurent in Wainwright's opera, Prima Donna.Photo: Robert Workman

Wainwright was in Montreal with his mother in her final weeks. He remembers her “big pilly pajama pants with rainbows and unicorns on them, or this L.L. Bean ripped-up T-shirt or something,” and he tears up. He adds, “There’s something in the utter lack of vanity that’s very touching when the end is nigh, how carrying her in her Snuggie was a more emotional experience than when we dressed her up as Clytemnestra.”

Then he laughs. Wainwright has a honky, nasal, somewhat peremptory laugh—the laugh of an old drunken broad who guffaws mirthlessly at her own jokes to spare others the bother. Like most of the unusual aspects of Wainwright’s personality, it comes across as a bit of a defensive tactic.

Wainwright thinks that his mother “was the most talented of all of us. Anyone will tell you this, even my father.” More talented than himself? “Oh, yes, far more talented—just in terms of her musicality, it was so natural and embedded in her every move. Her songs will last for a long time. ‘Talk to Me of Mendocino’ or ‘Go Leave,’ these are perfect songs for anyone to sing.”

They had a complicated relationship. When the teen Wainwright told his mother he was gay, she was dismayed. “She was like, ‘I don’t want you to be gay, you can’t do this to me,’” Wainwright says, laughing. Partly this was because of AIDS, but also, he theorizes, because she had gone to Catholic schools. “She was never happy about it, really, though she took full advantage of all the trappings,” he says, sounding half-bitter and half-amused.

But then again, Wainwright was always a handful. He’s talked about searching for gay sex in Montreal as young as 14 and being raped in London’s Hyde Park at that age by a guy he picked up while visiting with his father.

If Wainwright gets much of what he calls his “bright side”—his warmth, his humor, his tendency to gather people around himself into an extended musical family—from his mother, it’s possible to credit some of his darkness to his father, whose quiet career got a boost of late when he won a Grammy for a tribute album to the folksinger Charlie Poole.

When Wainwright was an infant, Loudon wrote a song, “Rufus Is a Tit Man,” about his son’s love of breast-feeding (“So put Rufus on the left one / And put me right on the right / And like Romulus and Remus / We’ll suck all night”). Online, there’s a clip from a documentary about Loudon, who stands with his awkward, somewhat feminine teenage son. Loudon plays a ditty on the piano, and an interviewer asks Rufus his opinion.

“I love that song, I really do,” Rufus says, shyly. “It’s very simple, which is nice.” And Dad’s piano playing? “Well, I mean, I don’t know that I would, um, change it at all,” he says. Then, slyly: “If I were playing the piano, you don’t have parallel fifths and stuff.”

Loudon cracks: “What’s a parallel fifth?” (It’s a clunky progression eschewed by classical musicians.) “You can tell that he hasn’t studied,” Rufus continues. “Never took a lesson in my life!” his father snorts, then starts banging on the piano.

On Poses, Wainwright’s 2001 album, he covered his father’s vaguely self-recriminatory ballad of self-sufficiency, “One-Man Guy.” Without changing a lyric, he turned it into a plaintive search for gay true love. On his next album, Wainwright confronted his father in the song “Dinner at Eight” (“Daddy, don’t be surprised / If I wanna see the tears in your eyes”). But the two reconciled a bit over Kate’s sickness, and Loudon was there when she died. Loudon thanked her in his Grammy speech for teaching him to play the banjo better.

As for Kate, she adapted to having a gay son. She invited his drag-performer friends, like Justin Bond and Michael Cavadias (Lily of the Valley), to her family’s old country home in St. Sauveur des Monts, Quebec, singing and drinking with and confiding in them. Wainwright was always there for her. “He opened a lot of doors for her and took her around the world,” says Anna. “He was a protector of his mother, and she of him. I think he’s going to have a hard time.” Ultimately, though, “Kate was more cynical than Rufus.”

Wainwright identifies intensely with a certain type of tragic woman, from La Traviata’s Violetta to Edie Sedgwick (he even has a song on his first album called “Damned Ladies,” about the various doomed opera heroines he’d like to save). In 2006, Wainwright re-created at Carnegie Hall Judy Garland’s 1961 concert there. And then there’s Lulu, the titular muse of his latest album. She’s the bewitchingly disastrous flapper played by Louise Brooks in the 1929 G. W. Pabst silent film Pandora’s Box. Lulu drives to madness and death the upright Germans who are besotted with her, then ends up being killed by a Jack-the-Ripper type.

Wainwright on the beach as a child.Photo: Courtesy of Wainwright/McGarrigle Family

To Wainwright, she’s the seductive demoness that resides inside him, beckoning him to ruin. “That dark, nihilistic, fabulously destructive creature is a beautiful thing,” he says. “To try to eliminate or minimize it is so futile and dangerous you have to appease her through sacrifice.”

More specifically, to Wainwright, Lulu is also crystal meth, a drug that has felled many with its enticements of hours-long sexual abandon. “Lulu thinks everything’s fine,” he says, “but everything’s coming crashing down around her and lives are being spun out of control. It’s a good analogy of what crystal is like.”

After his debut album in 1998, his fall into drug use began with a somewhat unexceptional gay party life, hanging out with friends like Cassidy and Cavadias at places like the Cock, a divey gay bar in the East Village. “His whole crystal thing was after we’d been doing coke and drinking, the normal 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” says Cassidy. “He’d go off and have his own scene with the drugs and the whole sex thing.”

A couple of years later, Wainwright seemed “like a fast train heading toward a crash,” says Joan Wasser, a musician friend. One night at the now-defunct bar the Hole, “I told him, ‘I’m not going to drink,’ ” says Cassidy, “and I remember how he looked at me like it was a foreign language.”

Wainwright sent himself to rehab in 2002. “He had his own wake-up,” says former Hole bassist Melissa auf der Maur, who grew up with Wainwright in Montreal. “I’ve never seen someone so deep into the dark side self-initiate [recovery], and that is the true strength of Rufus … There’s some sort of gold umbilical cord that keeps him tapped into something.”

In 2003, on the release of his third album, Want One, he went public with the whole sordid meth ordeal in the New York Times. “He was the first one to seriously get clean out of the batch of us,” says Cassidy. “I remember he had a sober birthday party, a tea party. The rest of us were still drinking and using drugs, and there were these weird, corny people there who I know now as sober people.”

Wainwright admits that he was on the edge of self-destruction. “I should be HIV-positive. I certainly have had sex with many people who are, and very unsafe sex at that, so it’s a miracle.” He says he hasn’t relapsed on crystal meth, though he did for a time drink alcohol again. “There hasn’t been a trap yet that’s opened up where I don’t know what happens but the next thing you know I’m on drugs,” he says. He says he’s been teetotaling since his mother’s death.

Cassidy, who’s had a falling out with Wainwright (perhaps in part because, as he admits, he started calling him “the gay Billy Joel”), thinks Wainwright doesn’t want to let that evil woman go. “He could never fully get into the process of recovery because he fears that if he opens Pandora’s box”—like the movie!—“and looks at his stuff, he’s going to lose his inspiration for his music, his pain and baggage. That if he’s happy and free, he won’t be inspired.”

As Wainwright sang, with some understatement, on “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” which came out when he was still using drugs, “Everything it seems I like a little bit sweeter / A little bit fatter, a little bit harmful for me.” And even today, “I won’t lie and tell you that being in a long-term relationship and having this wholesome lifestyle isn’t very against my nature.”

Wainwright’s boyfriend of the past five years is a strapping German named Jörn Weisbrodt, 36. He’s the managing and creative director of Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center in the Hamptons. They met in Berlin, over dinner, when Wainwright was performing there in 2005. Weisbrodt had become intrigued with him after hearing the album Poses, partly because, he says, “his songwriting is Schubertian, where the music interprets the text.” Weisbrodt wanted to talk to Wainwright about musicalizing Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a project that never panned out. “Rufus looked like a medieval-woodcut angel by Tilman Riemenschneider, a master woodworker from Nuremberg,” Weisbrodt says. “I was quite, how do you say, stricken? But I was very intimidated and nothing really happened.”

“He wanted to take me out to Wiener Schnitzel with a couple of other people, and I said okay,” Wainwright remembers. “I thought he was out of my league physically, because I’m from New York, where there’s such delineation between Chelsea queens and downtown banjee boys.” Besides, at first, “I wasn’t devastated by his appearance necessarily—I was still more interested in straight heroin addicts.” A year later, a mutual friend invited Weisbrodt to Wainwright’s birthday party in the Hamptons. They kissed for the first time the next night.

With sister Martha Wainwright.Photo: Dave M. Bennett/Getty Images

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.”

The McGarrigle-Wainwright clan at the Newport Folk Festival.Photo: Courtesy of McGarrigle/Wainwright Family

On his new album, Wainwright recorded a raucous, saloon-hall romp called “Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now,” a retort to her. He calls the critic a “greedy sow” and sings, “I will eat you, your folks and your kids / For breakfast,” then, “I would never wish / Death upon you, your cats and your throw cushions / On Christmas.”

Does he think that was a bit much? “You could tell that she was jealous of my situation,” Wainwright says. “The way she said, ‘Oh, he comes in and everybody’s bowing and clapping and he’s dressed ridiculously.’ It was probably just mass jealousy or something that happened to her as a kid. Her mother didn’t let her play with anybody.” While he allows that “she had every right not to like the piece,” Wainwright says, “she said, ‘I’m going to be as negative and mouthy as possible so that people quote my review,’ which is what happened.” And just happened again, though only because he wrote a song about her that includes the refrain “No, you can’t be the one.” I ask him what he means by that lyric. “I’m saying, ‘You’re not the artist.’ ” The Laugh. “And no matter what you do, you’ll never be the artist, and that’s the end of the story.”

The next afternoon, a few hours before Prima Donna’s final London dress rehearsal, Wainwright and I meet again to chat. He’s been out shopping that day in Camden Passage, a quaint nearby alley of shops with things like embroidered waistcoats and expensive mid-century furnishings, and he seems supremely bored, hiding behind huge sunglasses with gold rims that form a giant figure eight over his eyes. Again, he talks about juggling the new album and the opera and his mourning. “I was either going to sit in the bathroom crying in the mirror or, you know, work.”

I asked him how he feels. “I’m devastated, I’m ecstatic, I’m impatient, I’m lonely, I’m totally satisfied,” he says. Jörn is now here with him, I note. But the loneliness is a different sort of loneliness. “I lived so publicly with this relationship with my mother, this intense mother-son thing was an example for thousands of people, at least. To have that ripped from me is—is a real, you know, tragedy.” So that’s the loneliness? “Of course. We were really famous, our relationship, it’s like when Sonny lost Cher, or when Cher lost Sonny, or when Cher lost Bono.” Wainwright usually caps off seriousness with ridiculousness, which is both endearing and sometimes also numbing.

Soon enough, back on the topic of his opera, he’s in grandiose mode. “Once you’re in the realm of composing an opera,” he tells me breathlessly, “it just kind of flattens everything.” The Laugh. “Conceivably, honestly—if I could become a great opera composer—like a Verdi or a Wagner, Puccini, Strauss”—his eyes are rolling back in his head behind the sunglasses reeling off these names—“but an American! I would be kind of the first.”

What of the other American opera composers? “Samuel Barber, Bernstein,” he recites dismissively, “but no great one. They always fell short.” Quickly shifting to his other frustrated ambition, to be a huge pop star, he says that while that could still very well happen, he doesn’t care in a way, “because I have a whole other career I can fall back on.”

Why does he think he’s not developed more mass-market fame, outside of the indie-folkie set that forms the heart of his fan base? He mulls this over for awhile, finally deciding that his albums have been “probably just too intelligent, really, and too unusual.” Earlier, he’d brought up Lady Gaga’s success and how she’s misunderstood. “I think she’s an amazingly impressive force of nature,” he says. “But watching society fall so hard for something that’s so kind of manipulative—it’s just depressing a little bit. There’s no romance. I want to offer some kind of emotional safe place where people can feel free to be unhappy and sensitive and imperfect. And not cold.”

I ask him if he realizes that his sometimes spectacular ambition can be off-putting by seeming megalomaniacal in some way. “But it would be disingenuous to mask it,” he says. “The one thing I hate the most in the world is false modesty. Those are the most dangerous people in the world. I’ve seen it, with a lot of hip artists—and when I say this, I’m actually fascinated by it and I’ve never been able to do it.” He mentions Beth Orton and Antony Hegarty, both friends he’s played with. “They have this street cred where they can present themselves as extremely sensitive and flawed … and it just makes people rush to them.” However, he acknowledges, “I don’t do that.”

With father Loudon Wainwright III in 1996.Photo: Courtesy of McGarrigle/Wainwright Family

“I think humility is important,” he says. “But I don’t think it is a necessity. I guess I’m a little more of an Ayn Rand person. In the end, I’ll be judged only by my work.”

The new staging for the opera didn’t do much better with the critics. A new reviewer from the Independent declared, “This rather camp confection … for the most part, is distressingly derivative”; while the Telegraph praised the orchestration as “extravagantly rich and brightly coloured,” it derided the story as “hopelessly camp and melodramatic,” warning that “ironic detachment and self-criticism will be required if he is to develop as an opera composer.”

The afternoon Wainwright performs his new album for the first time in full plumage, it’s in a small London space at Sadler’s Wells.

The lights go dark. A floor light shoots diagonally from upstage right to the black Steinway. In the gloom, Wainwright walks along the trail of light in slow, stylized, Robert Wilson–esque steps, dragging the seventeen-foot train behind him, then sits carefully at the piano. The effect is striking, eerie, moving, and a bit silly. A massive screen behind him plays a mesmerizing video by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon: various iterations of Wainwright’s thickly painted, green eye slowly opening and closing.

As at the Rose Bar show, there are some clunkers in the first few songs, accompanied by Wainwright’s low, angry groans and mock long-suffering facial expressions. But by the sonnets, he’s really hit his stride, holding the room in thrall to his tenor, coaxing every wrinkle of beauty and pathos out of his long notes.

Before he starts “The Dream,” the epic number that he couldn’t quite play in New York, he lets out a big, here-we-go sigh, shoves back his piano bench in a jerking way totally out of sync with the dark gravitas he intends for the program. The piano parts, clearly so much denser and trickier than they need to be, change with lightning speed, his vocal registers leap high, then drop low again, but … he pulls it off!

That it’s so touching to watch has nothing to do with the song, but rather with the fact that he finally managed to hurdle a bar he’d set so ambitiously, even a bit masochistically, high for himself, so soon after his mother’s death. But then, leaving the stage amid the hush he’s imposed upon all of us, in that crazy glum-crow outfit, he is Kate and Loudon’s son, his hunger for the stage briefly sated.

Il Divo