Singing to a popular tune: Rufus Wainwright at the Royal Opera House

Tim Woodall

Rufus Wainwright photo by M 300x177 Singing to a popular tune: Rufus Wainwright at the Royal Opera HouseOver the past few years, the Royal Opera House, bastion of high culture and one of the Britain’s biggest arts organisations, has shown a knack for generating populist appeal. In 2008, Covent Garden opened its doors exclusive to readers of the Sun newspaper for the first night of its season. The tabloid even parked its open-topped bus outside the venue on the evening of the performance of Don Giovanni. Then earlier this year, an opera-biopic of American trailer trash icon Anna Nicole Smith brought a level of publicity that any opera composer would give their right arm for.

Where on the scale of populism does Rufus Wainwright sit? The singer-songwriter sets up shop in July for the House of Rufus, making him the first solo artist to be resident at the opera house. The project’s subtitle,  “Five Nights of Velvet, Glamour and Guilt”, sums up the high-camp aesthetic of this very operatic pop star.

Indeed, opera has been with Wainwright from the beginning. Verdi was an important early influence and one which he has clearly channelled into his lushly harmonic and thematically dramatic song-writing. So the actual Wainwright opera, when it came, was not a surprise.

Prima Donna debuted at the Manchester International Festival two years ago, to a lukewarm reaction. Wainwright’s French-language tale about an aging opera singer drew fire for its indulgence (a criticism of his song writing too at times) and lightweight plot. Writing in the Independent about a subsequent performance at Sadler’s Wells, Edward Seckerson described it is a “camp confection” that for the most part was “distressingly derivative”.

Wainwright hasn’t ditched his first stab at opera though. A concert version of Prima Donna is the culminating gig of his Royal Opera House residency. Perhaps more enticingly, Wainwright performs a concert each with his sister Martha and father Loudon Wainwright III (songwriter and folk singer), in between two performances of another side project, a Judy Garland tribute. The gig with Wainwright senior is the real draw. The two have only begun to really work together since the death of Rufus’s mother, Kate McGarrigle, last year. Operatic glitz versus down-home folk: it could go either way.

No doubt the House of Rufus will fill the theatre and do a little more to dispel the Royal Opera’s unfairly attributed elitist image. The ROH probably wishes its education projects – such as the technical education centre built in Thurrock, a depressed area of the Thames Gateway – receive more credit for broadening its appeal and remit. But it is canny enough to know a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on the viewpoint) dose of populism probably does as much good in making the case for Covent Garden as an open and diverse institution.

The House of Rufus runs from July 18 to 23.

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