Hedonist, genius, father, brother, addict, sodomite, legend: Rufus Wainwright has been called a lot of things. But mundane? It’s just not an adjective you can ascribe to the modern day composer. With a tuft of Oscar Wildean hair and a wit as sharp as that 19th century poet, Wainwright evokes a time when to be gay was to change the world through art, music, and language.
But today, when gay culture is synonymous with Glee or has been summed up in a trite hashtag, what has changed? With over a decade of music to his credit, Wainwright has always courted the mainstream, but refuses to compromise himself for pop star status. It’s this unwavering confidence that draws his fans back time and time again.
Now married, Wainwright is instead focusing on grander projects to leave his own legacy — beyond that of his daughter, of course. The transition has not been easy. With his opera, Prima Donna, a difference of opinion over the libretto forced a wedge between the musician and the Metropolitan Opera. But Wainwright, not one to back down from a challenge, has pressed forward and will be joining the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap on July 31 to serenade us with his music: some old and some new.
METRO WEEKLY: Twelve years ago, you told us that the next thing you’re going to make is an opera. Now that you’ve written Prima Donna, how do you feel?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: I’m definitely a man of my word, at least artistically. If I have an idea in my head, I tend to stick with it. Although I have changed my mind on things before. Like on gay marriage. I never really thought I’d have a child. But on a creative level, I’m extremely tenacious.
Prima Donna just recently aired on the BBC, the libretto is going to be released in the fall, and there will be concerts of the opera around the world. It’s been a big success, people want to hear it, people want to sing it, and orchestras want to play it. It’s very exciting and very scary. When I first started writing songs, I worked tirelessly at my piano, and my singing, and I still do that. But over the years it’s gotten easier, now I am handed things on a silver platter. Sometimes, I miss the raw turmoil that entails.
MW: You mentioned you changed your mind on marriage. What do you think about the recent Supreme Court decision? [This interview was conducted on June 26, the day of the ruling.]
WAINWRIGHT: I think it’s incredible. This whole week has been such an incredible milestone. Both with upholding Obama’s healthcare decision, the housing decision, gay marriage. It’s a great time to talk about gay marriage. But ultimately, I’m in a wonderful relationship and I’m happy to know that some old people in dresses like what I’m doing.
MW: What were your thoughts in the past?
WAINWRIGHT: Initially, I was against gay marriage, because I felt strongly that gay men had created their own intense and high culture — whether it was Oscar Wilde, or Andy Warhol or Tchaikovsky. In my opinion, the most sophisticated cultural movements have been in the gay male community. I didn’t want to lose that. I didn’t want to lose the sexual freedom, but I held strongly to that sense of culture. That being said, I’ve been married to my husband for three years, and in a relationship for ten years. Beyond being gay, beyond being a man, I am a human being, I’m a living soul. And being united with another soul in the eyes of the community is a very important concept that I have to adopt. I am getting older, and I can’t just go to bars anymore.
MW: Are you worried that marriage will homogenize the gay community?
WAINWRIGHT: Gay marriage will not be the same as straight marriage. There won’t be a way to disassociate from the history we’ve had. We’re not just going to become straight. We have tasted from the poison chalice. Marriage is a difficult prospect for anyone whether you’re gay, straight, transgender. It’s constantly evolving.
I grew up in the days of danger. When I was young, it was late ’80s, early ’90s. Last gasp of the very clandestine world of being a gay man. It was very intense. People were dying of AIDS. I experienced that as a young person. For better or worse, it was very inspiring. But now it’s a different world — new challenges, new tragedies and new triumphs.
MW: Speaking of challenges, in addition to marriage you’re also a father. Your daughter Viva enjoys two sets of musical genes, doesn’t she?
WAINWRIGHT: Her grandfather is Leonard Cohen. Both my parents are musical kings and queens. My father [Loudon Wainwright III] was a singer, and so was my mother [Kate McGarrigle]. So to me it seemed really natural to have a musical family. But her main residence is with my friend, Lorca [Cohen]. That being said, when we began this journey, it was very old-fashioned. I thought “You know, we’re all from Montreal, we’re all from music, why don’t we join forces?”
MW: So when is her first album coming out?
WAINWRIGHT: [Laughs.] Whenever she comes from a show of mine, she comes right up to me and says “Okay, now it’s my turn.” I wouldn’t hold it against her if she did write an album.
MW: Isn’t there a song on Out of the Game about her?
WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, “Montauk.” I wrote it about her when she was just born. It was looking forward to times when she would come and visit me at my house in Montauk. It was about setting the frame of a beautiful painting that we could all eventually walk into. But now we’ve done it. We’ve been in that picture.
MW: As one of the first openly gay artists, what are your thoughts on the current influx of gay musicians?
WAINWRIGHT: You know, there was some article about Adam Lambert saying he was the first gay person to be signed to a major label, which is not true, because I was signed first. I was trying to get in touch with them to make this correction, and they insisted I was in the closet when my first album came out. When I started my album, I said I was gay, but I’ve always been more concerned with my music. Let’s talk about boys until the cows come home, but it’s really about the art. Adam Lambert really focused on his being gay because it was kind of his thing.
It’s a difficult question, because on one hand, being gay and being out in the Western world, that’s a privilege. You can do that. You’re not arrested or killed, or hurt. But if you’re in Saudi Arabia, or Africa, it’s a matter of life or death. It’s a huge human rights violation. If you take away my art, you take away my music, I want to affect human rights. That should come before songwriting or your career.
MW: What does the future hold for you?
WAINWRIGHT: I still have to write this other opera, Hadrian. It will premiere in 2018, and it’s gonna be a major work — four acts, with ballet numbers. That will definitely leave an impression. Of course, there are other legacies. I still love working with my family. My sisters and my father are doing a tour of Alaska. That’s a very big part of me. It’s been ten years since Judy came out. I’m still writing songs throughout all of this. At the moment, I am really taking stock of all these incredibly events that have happened. But the fact is, I can’t go out and make pop records as much. I have to see what happens. I’m just following my instincts. And at the end of these two years, I will be very instinctual.
MW: You’ll be singing with the National Symphony Orchestra later this month. What makes orchestras a compelling medium for you?
WAINWRIGHT: Oh, I’ve sung with many orchestras — the Chicago symphony, the Montreal symphony. I am quite experienced in that forum. I’m excited to do it. It’s quite a good match actually. In terms of my voice, and my knowledge of opera and love of classical music, it comes naturally to me. It’s embedded in my voice. I can hear what’s going on in the music.
MW: In terms of your own music, you’ve gained a huge following in the gay community. You’ve also inspired many of them. How does it feel to be so integral to those people?
WAINWRIGHT: I’m incredibly, incredibly moved and thankful to the forces that be that I’ve been able to help people along the way just by being myself. I have walked the streets in protest, but it’s not the center of my existence. I have been honest at the outset of my career about my sexuality, writing songs about guys even on my first album. Telling my record company that I am gay and saying “We’re not going to try and change that.” I think that was the right choice.
There was a deep-seated bigotry that did occur because of my sexuality. I suffered some passing over in terms of the guy who gets the video budget, or the guy who gets the SNL gig. But at this point there are so many people who have come together over my music. And I would say for gay men, I’ve been a little critical. You know, this whole concept of coming out of the closet is “the best thing.” It’s not just about doing a lot of drugs, and having sex all the time — I’m not against that — but I’m always for what makes being gay great. Like what I was saying about Oscar Wilde, and Tchaicovsky. For me personally, it’s been a good run I think, and that’s because I’ve always been myself.
Rufus Wainwright performs with the National Symphony Orchestra on July 31 at The Filene Center at Wolf Trap, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna, Va. Tickets are $25-$58 and are available at wolftrap.org or by calling 1-877-WOLFTRAP (965-3872).
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