Rufus Wainwright, an internationally renown singer/ songwriter, will be performing with Norah Jones and his sister Martha Wainwright at the Watermill Center’s “Last Song of Summer” this Saturday at 5pm. The performance benefits the Watermill Center’s Artist in Residence Program. Tickets for the show are still available at lastsong.eventbrite.com
by Marianna Levine
How did you initially become involved with Robert Wilson and the Watermill Center? And who thought up “The Last Song of Summer?”
I’ve come out to Long Island for years in the summer. I started going to Shelter Island mostly with my dad as a teenager and we’d often come through the Hamptons to gawk at the fabulous people. Longingly. (Laughs). I, of course had heard of Robert Wilson. I’m a big opera fan and he’s pretty famous in the opera world, so after I made my first album, I went to his benefit out here and it was a fun party. And it started with that. I subsequently started coming back and now my boyfriend, Jorn Weisbrodt, is the Creative Director of the Watermill Center so I’ve sort of become married to the Center. I also worked with Bob on a project based on Shakespearean sonnets. For certain people there is a kind of magnetic effect that keeps pulling them back (to the Watermill Center). It is a very creative place.
“The Last Song” was Jorn’s idea. He wanted to have a little concert with a special guest each year. Last year it was Jessye Norman. This year it’s Norah Jones. And I love this great song called “The Last Rose of Summer” which we sang last year and which we’ll sing this year. There’s something sort of romantic and tragic about trying to suck the life out of the final moments of the summer.
Can you give us a hint of what you will be performing at the Watermill Center’s “Last Song of Summer” this year? For example will you perform the Shakespearean sonnets or pieces from your opera “Prima Donna”?
I’ll do a couple of the (Shakespearean) sonnets. I will also perform an aria from my opera. One thing that is amazing about Norah Jones, aside from her songs and her voice, is that she’s a really fantastic pianist. We’re going to do a couple of old standards together. I won’t say exactly what they are yet but we’re going to get a little jazzier. And then my sister, Martha Wainwright, will be opening and she’ll be singing a lot of Edith Piaf songs.
An important aspect of my career has been group numbers, especially with my family. My mother Kate McGarrigle will be there too, and she loves going from the guitar to the banjo and then to the piano and harmony.
You just premiered your first opera, “Prima Donna” at the Manchester International Festival in England. Working on the opera probably occupied most of your time and energy over the past year. Has it been hard to let go of thinking and working on it?
I’ve had a couple of weeks off in which to decompress, but the reality of the situation is that now’s the time to really fight for the work. It’s premiering in London and Toronto this spring, and then it’s going to Melbourne. But especially with an opera, if you don’t push for it, it’s possible you won’t hear it again for two hundred years.
The main thing is that I did survive the critics; I mean the European classical music ones which are traditionally the hardest and most ruthless. No other pop musician has survived when entering that realm. They tore apart Paul McCartney, but I made it through so I’ve got to keep going.
A lot of your audience is familiar with your “popular” music. Do you feel those fans came along with you to the opera?
Oh yeah. What was really exciting about the shows in Manchester was that half the audience if not more had never been to the opera before, and they were totally open to the experience and willing to go wherever I took them. I think it was great in that sense, and you know I think that is why the Opera world needs me! Don’t get me wrong I adore opera. I have the highest regard for it. I understand my first opera is nowhere near as good as the real classical operas but you hope you get there eventually.
How has writing an opera changed or influenced your song writing in general?
I don’t know. My next album will be solo piano and voice, and very intimate. I do like to challenge myself. This time I’ve really challenged my piano playing. A lot of he songs I’m writing for this next album are dreadfully complicated. Some of them are very simple. I make it easy on myself occasionally too, but these are the hardest piano parts I’ve ever written.
You perform internationally, and have quite a large and loyal fan base in Europe. How would you say the audiences in Europe and North America differ? Do you perform a different set list depending on the venue?
If I play a bar I’ll do a different show than if I’m playing Carnegie Hall. But in terms of the people and the crowd, I look at them as the same in a way. I think in Europe and England I’m a kind of bigger star but in a weird way in America, I might be slightly hipper. What’s fascinating is that there is still such a gulf between England and America. You’d think in this day and age everything would relate to one another, but they’re still two different worlds.
You’re often considered a Canadian singer songwriter, but you were actually born in New York. Could you talk a little about your connections to New York and Eastern Long Island?
I was born in New York, but brought up in Canada. Actually my grandfather is buried in East Hampton. All of our family is from the East End, so I’m really a native Hamptonite returning home after two generations.