Martin Scorsese once called Rufus Wainwright a “one-man Greek chorus.” The hyperliterate singer-songwriter is the son of folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, a devoted fan of Judy Garland and recently an opera composer. (His first, the French-language “Prima Donna,” premiered this summer.) His next release is a live album, “Milwaukee at Last!!!,” which was recorded during a 2007 concert and filmed by documentarian Albert Maysles. Both the CD and DVD are out Tuesday.
What was the highlight of that night in Milwaukee?
When you know the eyes that are looking at you through the camera are Albert Maysles’, the same eyes that witnessed Edie Beale waltzing down her filthy living room steps, it’s really electrifying. That night was smack in the middle of the Release the Stars tour, so I was a well-oiled machine at that point. Ready to give Judy to the public, you know? And what better place to test that out than in the Midwest? Right in the heartland.
How did they react? You dressed as Judy Garland during the encore, but only after you wore lots of sequins and lederhosen first.
Well, my audience has always been rather crazed about me, so together we just got swept up in the whirlwind. It was amazing.
I just want people to get their money’s worth. I know how hard it is to survive in this economic climate and I want people to remember my shows and want to come back for more. So I just imprint their minds with, you know, lewd visions.
The Metropolitan Opera originally commissioned “Prima Donna,” an opera about a fading opera star. What was the inspiration for it?
The idea kind of shot into my brain after watching these interviews with Maria Callas, but I very quickly realized that her story is so well-known and so overdone. It occurred to me, though, that the idea of an opera singer is pretty brilliant and hasn’t been done, so I ran with it. I had many things to draw upon. First, I’m a singer myself, and while I wouldn’t say I’m a prima donna, I am pretty tempestuous, so I put some of me in there. Also, because the main character, Regine, is an opera singer, it allowed me to sort of lean on my romantic sensibilities. A lot of the music from her old repertoire is swirling in Regine’s head, so I didn’t feel constrained. There was no pressure to be either modern or romantic -- I could go across the board.
Did you feel liberated while writing it? Your last solo album of original music, “Release the Stars,” was already a pretty operatic production.
The only way I can describe writing an opera is that when you start out you’re on the moon, you think it’s going to be great. Then in the middle of the whole process you go, “What the hell was I thinking? I’m never doing this again. I hate everyone in my life. I might as well kill myself.” Then it premieres and it’s almost like a type of amnesia takes over. You think, “I can’t wait to do it again! Show me to the next cliff!” Actually, I think I want to do a musical next. That way I can sing and star in it.
You did get to make a grand entrance for the opening.
I did. I dressed up as Verdi, and my boyfriend dressed up as Puccini. We sort of tempted fate, didn’t we? Had the premiere been in London or Paris or New York, I don’t think we would have done that. But in Manchester, England, they like a little bit of flair up there. It gets cold in the winter.
I read that your next album is going to be a stripped-down affair like your earlier work.
Yes, it’s just me singing with the piano. My fans have been bombarded by these massive projects, between “Rufus Does Judy” and the opera, and I feel like it’s time for some sorbet. A little musical sorbet to just clean the palate. And then we can go to Broadway. Sorbet before the Broadway. I don’t know when it will be ready, though.
What else are you working on?
“Prima Donna” is going to London, Toronto and Australia still. There are also serious talks of bringing it to Paris and New York. The thing is, the show got a full range of criticism -- some of it was glowing, some of it was stone cold. But the general consensus was that I survived and people want to judge for themselves. And I guess that’s a lot better than can be said for a lot of other pop musicians who stuck their necks out in theater and are now pretty much headless.
Do you do anything to relax?
Can it be TV? I love -- what’s that designer’s name on Bravo? -- Rachel Zoe. I watch her show and just beam with gratitude. She’s great. I mean, I would love to work with her, of course. But I wouldn’t want to work for her.