From pop to opera: petrified Rufus Wainwright embraces 'the dark religion'

Manchester premiere next year for singer-songwriter's debut production

Rufus Wainwright's plangent, melancholic pop songs, pulsating with emotion and drama, might be said to have an operatic perfume about them. And now the singer-songwriter is going the whole way - composing a two-act, two-hour opera for four singers and full orchestra, to be premiered in Manchester next year.

"I was horrified, petrified," he said of plunging into opera-writing. "But now I've jumped in, it's an utter joy."

The opera has been commissioned by Manchester international festival (MIF), following on from its successful premiere last year of Damon Albarn's Monkey: Journey to the West.

"Since I was 14 years old I have been converted to the dark religion of opera," said Wainwright. "I'll even be dramatic about it: it has saved my life, guiding me through some pretty tough junctures."

For years, he said, he had been looking for an operatic subject "that wasn't a saga involving a chorus and insane costumes". Finally, "a story fell into my lap, after watching an interview with Maria Callas. The opera is not about her, but it is about the persona of an opera star; it is the day in the life of an opera singer. Opera is one of the last bastions where you can investigate big emotions and romanticism; and opera singers themselves are tied into that sensibility because they inhabit that universe."

The piece is to be called Prima Donna, and he described the story as "late Straussian" - "the subtle shifts of a woman's heart; the grave consequences of little actions".

Wainwright, who grew up in Quebec, said that the lyrics had naturally come to him in French: "The French language flows a lot better in that kind of music; and in fact in turn the language has given rise to melodies that sound very French," he said, adding that he was "blown away" by writing for operatic voices, which he called "incredible instruments".

The musical language will not, he said, be modernist, "but extremely romantic and melodious". He added: "I want to capture an audience through beautiful music. I want it to be pertinent and challenging - but it is not Wozzeck or Ewartung," referring to two of the great expressionist masterpieces of the early 20th century, by Berg and Schoenberg respectively.

Wainwright is working with two assistants, students from Yale, but he says that he intends to orchestrate the work himself. The work is almost complete in outline: he is near to finishing a vocal score with piano reduction; the first act is already orchestrated; and MIF expects delivery of a full score in February. The piece is being workshopped this week with other members of the creative team.

The work is to be produced in partnership with Opera North, whose orchestra will perform the work under Pierre-André Valade. Daniel Kramer, responsible for English National Opera's recent production of Birtwistle's Punch and Judy, will direct, and Janis Kelly will take the lead role in the four-strong cast alongside Rebecca Bottone, William Joyner and Jonathan Summers.

Wainwright listed his operatic enthusiasms: "I am a Traviata fan; and I love the Ring cycle. I'm also a big Massenet fan. It is the romantic works that nourish me. I owe my musical outlook to Verdi - he gives me the full spectrum of a perfect career. Each of his operas was incrementally better than the last; but even the early works combined musical depth with so much simplicity. Verdi is my main man."

The opera was originally to be co-commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, New York, but Wainwright and the Met's general manager, Peter Gelb, parted company after it became clear that Gelb wanted an opera in English. Wainwright, however, was unwilling to switch languages; and he was also concerned by the Met's long lead times, meaning his opera would probably have to wait several years to be staged.

Alex Poots, artistic director of Manchester international festival, said: "It is a risk. Monkey could have fallen apart in a spectacular way - it brought a lot of people new to the art form together. Rufus's opera is also a new venture, and in a festival of 20 world premieres there are going to be some that work better than others."

He unveiled plans for two of the other major projects of next July's festival - a specially created space for the performance of Bach's solo instrumental works designed by Zaha Hadid; and an interactive theatre piece devised by Neil Bartlett on the subject of bingo, with cash prizes for audience members.

Poots, tired of hearing great musicians from the back of cavernous concert halls, has asked Hadid to come up with the best possible environment in which to experience the intimate and complex beauty of Bach's sonatas and partitas.

Working with an acoustician, she will create a "room within a room" on the top floor of the Manchester Art Gallery, which Poots expects to be "organic and sumptuous" in feel. The environment will seat a maximum of 200 for recitals by pianist Piotr Anderszewski, cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and violinist Alina Ibragimova.

Bartlett will create Everyone Loves a Winner, a work "about a well-loved but overlooked pastime - bingo". The Royal Exchange Theatre will be transformed into a bingo hall, the audience will play for cash prizes, and an "emotional, tender story" will unfold.

The budget for last year's festival was £9m, £3.6m of which was raised from the private sector - an area that could suffer if the banking crisis deepens and recession kicks in. "I am not yet worried," said Poots - "but of course things are changing every day."

• Manchester international festival, sponsored by the Guardian, runs from July 2 to July 19 2009.


Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer

The GuardianTramp

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