“I’ve written songs for so many years that it’s basically become a bodily function. There’s nothing glamorous about it whatsoever.”
So says singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. And while that summation might seem unusually self-deprecating, it’s certainly indicative of Wainwright’s work ethic.
After spending a year thoroughly digesting the Judy Garland songbook for his re-creation of Garland’s celebrated 1961 concert (captured on live record “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall”), as well as touring in support of his last album of original material, “Release the Stars” (which picked up GLAAD’s music award at the New York ceremony in March), Wainwright will soon be busy on an entirely new venture — an opera.
He functions as both composer and librettist (in French) for “Prima Donna,” commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, which he says focuses on “a day in the life of an opera singer.”
“I’ve wanted to write an opera since I was about 14 years old,” Wainwright relates, “but I couldn’t find a story that I could wrap my head around.” Inspiration came from his fascination with “the construct of the diva, from Maria Callas to Norma Desmond and the (Jean-Jacques Beineix) movie “Diva” from the ’80s. And God darn it, there’s a bit of me in that too.”
For someone who built a reputation on the strength of such deeply personal songs as “Beauty Mark” and “Go or Go Ahead,” the Garland project and the opera might both seem to be departures. Yet Wainwright’s music has always merged the theatrical with the confessional, so it makes sense that he’s equally at home writing from inside the head of an opera star as he is belting out “The Trolley Song” onstage.
“Once the lights go down, it all kind of boils down to the same thing,” he says. “It just has to be good.”
Wainwright receives the Stephen F. Kolzak Award at GLAAD’s Los Angeles event on Saturday.