Rufus Wainwright mulls his big leap into opera

After the debut of his first opera, Prima Donna, at the Manchester International Festival this weekend, Rufus Wainwright is marvelling at how far he's come.

There is opera in Rufus Wainwright's future.

After the debut of his first opera, Prima Donna, at the Manchester International Festival this weekend, the Canadian-American pop singer-songwriter is marvelling at how far he has come.

"I in no way think this is a masterpiece or the end of the line, but it is a very big jump that I did take and everyone pretty much understands that I'm dedicated to the form," he said in an interview with CBC's Q cultural affairs show on Tuesday.

Wainwright said seeing Prima Donna on stage was "totally thrilling." His mother,singer Kate McGarrigle,and sister, Martha Wainwright, along with other friends and family, were in the audience as the piece made its debut.

Wainwright attended the opening dressed as Verdi, his partner dressed as Puccini, to give the press something to talk about.

The critics have had mixed reaction, but Wainwright takes some pride in having drawn to an opera many people who wouldn't otherwise attend.

"The audience is completely smitten. People are elated when they walk out of the theatre and these are people who don't usually go to the opera. It's a whole new world for them. It's a whole new sensibility and they're really excited about that,' he said.

'The hours are tremendous'

Even before he began to write the piece, about a day in the life of a fading opera diva, Wainwright admitted he felt "stunted" by the great composers of opera, such as Verdi or Puccini.

The process of creating an opera has been a stretch for a writer who is used to writing pop hits for his own voice.

"The biggest challenge was orchestration. In terms of labour, the hours are tremendous," Wainwright said.

"Related to that is dealing with the balance between the human singers and the orchestra  where you're not using microphones. I'm used to the pop world where it's just assumed that you can write what you want. That was a new world."

The libretto is in French, and Wainwright has drawn praise from critics for the melodies and the quality of the music.

Still, he said it was sometimes a grind to keep working on the piece.

"There was moments when I wanted to walk away. The opera was my passion and the previous idealistic views of the form were sort of shattered," he said.

It was also an adjustment to create music he couldn't sing himself.

"Because opera is such a difficult craft, I in no way thought I could go up there and sing the role," he said. "I was relying on the singers to come through for me."

Intense experience

He takes some modest pride in the praise he drew from some of the singers.

"It's been years since they've been able to sing a modern piece that's so melodious and so written for the voice," Wainwright said.

From the high of a fantastic dress rehearsal, with Janis Kelly superb in the lead role of his creation, diva Régine Saint Laurent, to the "post-partum" letdown after the initial shows, Wainwright said the experience has been intense.

"It's the exact same thing that the character was going through. I realize that the piece was so kind of intricately connected to who I am and what I go through as a performer that I have to love it, no matter what," he said.

"I don't necessarily want to change my life and only do opera. That I've learned in this whole process that there are other things I still want to keep a handle on," he said.

Next up for the Montreal-raised singer — not another opera right away, but maybe a musical.

Prima Donna comes to Toronto next year as part of the Luminato festival.