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Jul 30, 2018 5:04 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Rufus Wainwright On His Own Terms: New Music, Old Music And A Taste Of The Roman Empire

Jul 31, 2018 10:06 AM

Rufus Wainwright is a busy man these days.

Not only is the singer-songwriter fresh from his U.K. summer tour, in recent months he also performed up and down the West Coast. In October, Mr. Wainwright’s new opera, “Hadrian,” which was commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company, will have its world premiere in Toronto, Canada. Finally, in November he embarks on “All These Poses,” a 20th anniversary tour of the United States and northern Europe that revisits his earliest albums, “Rufus Wainwright” and “Poses.”

“I’m a continental troubadour,” he admitted during a recent phone interview from Germany.

So when Mr. Wainwright performs in concert at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, August 18, he’ll be happy to be back on familiar turf.

That’s because his roots on the East End are long and deep. His father, folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, is a part-time Shelter Island resident, and he and his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, have a house in Montauk.

You could almost call it something akin to a homecoming.

“It totally is,” Mr. Wainwright said. “My husband and I now live in LA to be closer to Viva, our daughter, who is 7 and lives with her mom. I also have a place in the city, and we are looking toward spending more time in Europe—especially with the political climate now, which is tough.

“But our house in Montauk and the East End is always this beacon and where we find sanctuary,” he added. “It’s where we got married. I grew up in Shelter Island, and my family is in East Hampton. … Jörn has a long and colorful history on the East End. He was the Watermill Center director and worked with Robert Wilson.”

“What’s great about Montauk, near Hither Hills, where we are, you can do both—you can cut yourself off completely and not go down the stretch, or dive into the goings-on,” he said. “There’s options.”

With a musical career spanning 20 years, Mr. Wainwright also has options in choosing what he will play when he performs in Westhampton Beach. New York-born and Montreal-raised—his mother was the late Canadian singer Kate McGarrigle—his seven studio and three live albums have yielded a rich and full repertoire, including songs like “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” “Foolish Love,” and “Hallelujah,” which was written by the late Leonard Cohen, whose daughter, Lorca Cohen, is Viva’s mother.

“With a lot of those older songs I still perform now, there’s definitely solid material that has served me well for a long time,” Mr. Wainwright said when asked to reflect on the recordings from his earliest years. “It’s fun to go examine works I haven’t examined in a long time.

“Coming up in the fall, I’ll be performing at the Beacon [Theater in New York City]. It’s exciting to see how those songs fare,” he added. “I’ve always been super interested in making records that I believed were solid as stone musically—I think that wager has paid off, and it’s material people still reference.”

But it’s summer now, and for the Westhampton Beach show, Mr. Wainwright is opting to keep things loose. Though he hasn’t yet decided definitively what he’ll be playing at the concert, he is fairly certain the evening will include some of his most recent tunes.

“Right now, I’m working on a lot of new songs in the studio with Mitchell Froom for my next record,” he said. “I can’t guarantee what the set will be, but it will be a lot of new stuff. … I always love playing Westhampton Beach, and I love doing concerts in general.”

That’s fortunate, given the fact that, as Mr. Wainwright explained, his current extensive touring schedule is largely designed to support “Hadrian,” his new opera project. “I had to pay for that—that’s the reality,” he said.

But it’s all a labor of love. Though he’s built a reputation as a celebrated contemporary singer-songwriter over the course of the last two decades, it turns out that Mr. Wainwright’s true passion leans toward classical music—particularly opera.

“I was an opera fanatic at 13. … I’ve always maintained my love for the form,” he said.

Mr. Wainwright’s first opera, “Prima Donna,” told of a fading opera queen hoping to regain the spotlight late in her career. Set in 1970s Paris on Bastille Day, originally the composition was to be a commission for the Metropolitan Opera Company. But Mr. Wainwright and the Met parted ways over artistic differences—the Met wanted the opera to be written in English, but Mr. Wainwright insisted it be in French.

Instead, “Prima Donna” premiered at the Manchester International Festival in the U.K. in 2009. It was subsequently performed in 2010 in London and Toronto, followed in 2012 by a performance courtesy of New York City Opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

While “Prima Donna” was met with some positive—and some not so positive—reviews, it cemented Mr. Wainwright’s reputation as an opera composer and gave him the confidence to take on “Hadrian,” which tells the story of the 1st century Roman emperor and his not-so-secret love for another man, Antinous, who drowns in the Nile River.

“‘Hadrian’ is the opera I always wanted to write, long before ‘Prima Donna,’ but I didn’t feel I had the experience and knowledge to take on the Roman Empire in my first walk in the park,” Mr. Wainwright said. “I learned a lot from ‘Prima Donna’—from orchestration and critics to working with singers.”

Commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company in 2013, when “Hadrian” premieres in Toronto on October 13, it will be performed by two opera legends: American baritone Thomas Hampson as Hadrian, and Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as Empress Plotina, Hadrian’s adoptive mother.

When asked if he had the jitters about the world premiere of his passion project, Mr. Wainwright answered, “I’m not nervous, per se. I would say the issue with opera is, when you produce one, the rehearsal and mounting of it is so intense and angst-riven and dramatic, you have to lay it all out on the line.

“You become very attached to the piece. Then a critic comes the first night and doesn’t get it, after not knowing anything about the back story,” he added. “The first night, everyone has the jitters. I think critics should go the fifth night in.”

Whatever the critics ultimately think about his opera-writing skills this time around, when the curtain rises for the first time on “Hadrian,” it will nonetheless be an exciting night for Mr. Wainwright.

“With ‘Hadrian,’ I’m going to go out there and say it’s my operatic masterpiece, though that’s in the ear of the beholder,” he said. “Nonetheless, it’s something I feel strongly about bringing to fruition.”

Rufus Wainwright performs in concert at 8 p.m. on Saturday, August 18, at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach. Tickets are $95 to $150. For tickets, call 631-288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.

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