Saturday, 11 July 2009

Prima Donna indeed: Rufus Wainwright reminds us that great musicians really, really care

I don't know much about opera, but I know that only Rufus Wainwright could entice a crowd of genre virigins to a French language debut - and leave them whooping in the aisles. Witnessing the triumphant premiere of his opera 'Prima Donna' last night he emerged the unflappable renaissance man, sprinkling splendour wherever he goes.

Wainwright's genius lies in enchanting songwriting, delivering performances that can make you smile and break your heart. Prima Donna transferred his effortless grace and immodest grandeur piece-by-piece to the opera and answered his decree that someone needed to 'bring the tunes back'.

Not only do admire his balls for making such a bold foray into unchartered waters - risking a libretto of tutting from the critics - but what his show does is to enlighten music fans of all persuasions.

The premise - an opera about an opera singer - had the deconstructive, post-modern wink of an outsider. To tackle the life-affirming - yet painful - synchroncity between an artist's craft and their identity is something of a musicians in-joke. It was, as is befitting of Rufus, a vanity project in the extreme. It was also its definitive strength.

Our cultural obsession with music has left us deadened to the flicker of a tortured genius. When everyone can audition to be a star, the majority of musicians are dispassionate and expectant. From pop to rock banality yawns out a limp embrace.

For all the warbling, simpering and weeping crocodile tears on 'X Factor', no one believes Alexandra Burke would be driven to insanity if she lost her voice. She'd probably carve out an equally fulfilling career breeding kittens.

'Prima Donna' reunites a pop-savvy crowd with the notion a musician lives and dies by their art. That Wainwright has relayed this message in a medium out of step with mainstream music allows it a critical distance. It also sprays an insouciant fragrance into the haughty musk of its host genre. It shows both opera and pop what it's been missing - and confirms Rufus Wainwright as the prima donna standard for which all musicians should strive.