For singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright’s return to The Egg in Albany tonight, every audience member gets a close up view. That’s thanks to the visual component of the concert’s first half, a video creation by Douglas Gordon.
But don’t expect a live action shot of Wainwright on a big screen, like at an arena rock show.
Gordon is an acclaimed artist who works in large scale video formats and he’s created a very long and slow-moving treatment of Wainwright’s eyes, which are lined in heavy black mascara. The video will play on a 30-foot screen for the entire first half of the concert as Wainwright performs the 12 songs from his recent album “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu.” The album’s cover image, of Wainwright’s left eye, is also by Gordon.
“Its kind of like a dinosaur that’s come to the evening and is observing us,” joked Wainwright during a recent interview. “The camera took about 2000 frames a second, so it’s almost looks like it’s not moving.”
The video may be a particularly arty addition to Wainwright’s current world tour, now in its final leg. Yet since the focus is on Wainwright’s eyes — and tears — it’s just another way that the 37 year-old Canadian exposes himself to audiences.
“Songs for Lulu” is a decidedly personal effort. Where his past recordings featured lush arrangements by large teams of collaborators, it’s just Wainwright sitting alone at the piano and singing, as he’ll be doing at The Egg.
And then there’s the lyrics, like this line from “Sad with What I Have”: “Never met a more un-impressed depressed lad. Blue boy doesn’t have a thing on me.”
Career-wise Wainwright has nothing to whine about, with continual triumphs in both the popular and classical fields. But last January his mother, the folk singer Kate McGarrigle, died from cancer at age 63. Her declining health and passing affected all of Wainwright’s recent work and may have contributed to his view of the new album as not a collection of singles but a more classical creation. He calls it a song cycle, something more associated with guys like Schubert and Brahms than pop stars like Elton John.
“I never intended it to be a song cycle per se but I realized midway through there was an album of very engaging piano-voice material,” says Wainwright. “It’s the different key changes from song to song, the concentrating on the breath, and getting lost in the material. And that only happens in a song cycle.”
Audiences will be asked to withhold applause between songs, explains Wainwright, in order “to listen to the whole group.”
Wainwright has excerpted some of the material for other purposes though. The three settings of Shakespeare sonnets were premiered in an orchestral version with the San Francisco Symphony just last month and will be reprised with the Chicago Symphony this coming summer. For both gigs, Wainwright is the featured vocalist.
Regarding the departure from his own, highly personal lyrics, Wainwright says, “I’ve done a couple of little things here and there and always with fine writers like Shakespeare and William Blake. I’m pretty old school at the moment.”
He’s also increasingly focused on classical forms. His first opera, “Prima Donna,” premiered at the Manchester International Festival in July 2009 and has also been performed in London and Toronto. The New York City Opera just announced it will mount the piece’s Manhattan debut next spring.
It was originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera but Wainwright withdrew the piece in 2008 when the company insisted on an English libretto, instead of the French, and said that a debut production couldn’t be mounted until 2014.
“I’m an impatient pop star,” Wainwright said at the time. In other reports, Wainwright, who comes from a family of songwriters, complained of the laborious process of crafting libretto, music and orchestration. The success, though, seems to outweigh the difficulties in his memory.
“Opera’s my main squeeze. That’s what I’m feeling most comfortable with,” he says. Asked if another one is on the way, he gave a reply both coy and definitive: “There’s a lot of demand and a lot of negotiating.”
“It’s pretty tough, the classical world,” he says. “It’s a very rigid system. You have to slip into line in order to make something happen and that can be a great thing but can also be very annoying. I’ve never played it safe and diving into the classical world is one of those risks. I enjoy the battle but it has made me appreciate the freedom and creative energy that exists in the pop world.”
Wainwright likens the creation of an opera to the closest experience a man can have to birthing a child. “You have to build every aspect of the production through your head and your hands. And giving birth is pretty painful. In my mind that’s why I love it so much,” he says.
Recalling the early rehearsals of “Prima Donna,” Wainwright realized how much of himself was in the work.
“I was shocked at how sad it was and therefore how sad I was, but not able to access it consciously,” he says. “I stood back and looked at it and thought, boy you’re a pretty depressed guy.”
As Wainwright approaches the first anniversary of his mother’s death next month, his heart is healing and life goes on. Besides a string of professional commitments to keep him distracted, late last month during a concert at Royal Albert Hall, he announced his engagement to long-time boyfriend Jorn Weisbrodt.
“I’m getting happier,” he says. “I definitely see a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not a train.”
Originally appeared in the Times Union.
GAY EARS ADDENDUM:
Stephen Holden in the New York Times wrote an unusually insightful review of Rufus’ concert Monday night at Carnegie Hall, “The Dark Lady and Judy Garland Play the Muses.” Holden and so many other pop critics usually focus on the lyrics rather than the music, but this review offers a good analysis of the stylistic content of the songs as well as the sometimes problematic qualities of Wainwright’s voice, while also giving a pretty vivid description of the performer’s costumes. (Curious to see a picture of Rufus in that black dress…anybody?) But Holden didn’t do his homework about the video, wondering if it’s Rufus’ eye. And he also refers to the song “Art Teacher” as “a first-person short story about a woman’s lifelong passion for an instructor.” Gosh, I thought it was a boy’s crush on a male teacher.