As is well known, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright was commissioned several years ago by the Met Opera to compose an evening-length opera, part of the same program that will bring Nico's Two Boys - which just had its premiere at the English National Opera - to the Met in 2014. But, after Peter Gelb dismissed Rufus' Prima Donna for it's French libretto, the opera was picked up by NY City Opera, who will give the U.S. premiere next season.
City Opera General Manager George Steel (who, btw, has yet to reveal next season's plans after announcing that City Opera was abandoning their "long-time travertine home," the NY State Theater) introduced Wainwright Tuesday night at the World Financial Center's Winter Garden, part of this summer's River to River festival. " I've had the good fortune to see Prima Donna," Steel told a capacity crowd of over 1,000, "and I'm proud that City Opera will be presenting this exciting new opera for the first time in the U.S. next season."
Wainwright, who cheekily strutted on stage wearing a tuxedo jacket, black tie and black boxers, returned the favor throughout the night. "Berlin, London, Moscow," he said, "of all the great cities in the world, New York needs two opera companies."
Wainwright has a life-long love of opera which he apparently comes by naturally: throughout the evening he told us stories about his grandfather used to sing Wagner arias ("The were the popular songs of their time"), and how his mother, the late folksinger Kate McGarrigle, would play Puccini by ear. Tuesday's program, which was entirely chosen by Wainwright, mixed arias from both Prima Donna and some of his own favorite operas, along with some of his own songs. Appropriately enough, he started with dark and haunting "Damned Ladies," which name-checks a who's-who of dramatic opera heroines:
"Desdemona, do not go to sleep
Brown-eyed Tosca, don't believe the creep
I see it in his eyes...
Violetta, keep your man locked up
Or like Cio-Cio
You will end up burned by love or sickness...
There is a knock at the door
Tell me it's not Mimi again
Or is it Gilda's waiting passion to be stabbed and killed again
Katya Kabanova, why did you marry him?
You knew his mother was a bitch
And would keep hold of him
Oh Pamina got away from mama
Before the age of Rambo opera
Damned ladies of Orpheus
Your arias cause a stir in my sad and lonely heart."
But, as engaging a performer as Wainwright is, he knew enough to bring along some heavy hitters to deliver the goods on the operatic side. He charmingly introduced each of the singers and talked a bit about why he chose each aria. "I'm very nervous around opera singers," he admitted at one point, echoing the sentiment often heard among rock/pop instrumentalists who find themselves on the same bill as classically-trained musicians.
Sitting perhaps 20 feet from the stage, I was nearly blown out of my chair by Laura Vlasak Nolen's huge mezzo voice, which she leant to "O don fatale" from Verdi's Don Carlo and the "Seguidilla" from Bizet's Carmen. Steel should seriously consider casting Nolen for the title role in Anna Nicole, if he's got the balls to bring it over.
Anne-Carolyn Bird, a lyric soprano, leant her voice to a pair of French arias: "Dis-mois que je suis belle" from Thais and "Dans mon pays de Picardie" from Prima Donna, which brought to mind Puccini's Butterfly. The crowd seemed to eat up Bird's over-the-top dramatics.
Tenor Robert Mack was tender - if a bit light - in his rendition of "Che gelida manina" from La Boheme. On the other hand, bass-baritone Matthew Burns was mature and engaging in Wagner's "O du mein holder Abenstern" from Tannhauser. They teamed up on the well-known duet "O fond du temple saint" from Bizet's Pearl Fishers.
Wainwright did sing one aria from Prima Donna himself: "Les feux d'artifice," which reveals the title character's acknowledgement of her fading light as the onetime greatest singer in Paris. Whatever Wainwright lacked in operatic heft he more than made up for in tender emotion, his voice quavering like Thom Yorke's. It was the purest, most sincere moment of the evening. (Wainwright also sang two of his more popular ballads, "Who Are You New York?" and "Vibrate.")
Finally, the entire quartet ended the evening with the Act III quartet "Bella figlia dell'amore" from Verdi's Rigoletto that brought the house down. (All of the opera singers were accompanied by the talented pianist Kevin Murphy.)
So, what are we to make of this? Clearly, the vast majority of the youngish crowd were newbies to opera, and were drawn by Wainwright's significant star power and talent as a singer of popular song. Will they fulfill City Opera's hopes and go buy tickets to Prima Donna next season? Doubtful. Did some of Wainwright's sincere amazement at the magic of opera rub off on them to make them want to hear more? Well, that would be cool.
More pics on the photo page.