29 Oct 2016

Rufus Wainwright: opera, meth and family

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 29 October 2016

New York-born, Montreal-raised singer songwriter Rufus Wainwright will celebrate his love for opera, orchestra and divas when he brings selections from Prima Donna and Rufus Does Judy to the Auckland Arts Festival next year.

He told Kim Hill his love of opera began early and was a kind of musical rebellion against his folk singer-songwriter family background.

Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright. Photo: Matthew Welch

Wainwright is the son of musicians Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III and his sister Martha Wainwright is also a celebrated singer songwriter. 

Wainwright has released eight studio albums, three DVDs and three live albums.

He says despite coming from a family where he was surrounded by music, opera wasn’t part of the musical mix.

His father “hates” opera he says but his mother Kate was more open to it.

“When I became into it I took her along for the journey and it was fantastic we both discovered it together but there were moments when my mother’s hippie roots kicked in and she was like, ‘Why aren’t we singing with the people in the streets and helping out the farmers?’”

And as a gay man opera also resonated, he says.

“Opera has historically been very connected to homosexuality, so the opera was where gay men especially flourished and found refuge.”

Although his background was bohemian, his parents’ reaction to him coming out as a gay man was difficult, he says.

“I think they knew, they just they weren’t that cool; partially I do blame them and I do resent it and I’ve had to do a lot of therapy, because it was unusual in that they were artistic people, they knew a lot of gay people.

“But when I came out I was about 13 and it was right when AIDS was decimating the gay male population, so they were very afraid.”

As a young man he got involved in drugs and subsequently became addicted to crystal meth which he says he battled to quit.

“I would unequivocally say to anyone who inhabits the underbelly of the night, crystal meth and that department of drugs there’s nothing redeeming about it whatsoever.

“There’s no by-product - whether it’s poetry, whether you’re going write or novels anything that’s worthy - it really drives you crazy and destroys your body and your mind. One should just never do it.”

But he said his recovery when he was against the wire brought dividends after a tough struggle.

“Like anything hard, it’s rewarding in the end.”

Wainwright has campaigned for Hillary Clinton as president and says she is "brilliant".

“Trump is hard to go up against and he did annihilate the Republican Party! She will prevail and I think she’s going to be an amazing president.

“Her ability to diffuse this male chauvinistic bullshit, is just really important for the presidency and for society.”

Rufus Wainwright will appear in a two-part concert featuring members of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra with special guests (22 March 2017). The full Auckland Arts Festival programme will be revealed on 5 November.