With his slippery oboe-toned voice and its dramatic trills, singer Rufus Wainwright created a signature style the moment he opened his mouth. The only thing that could distinguish him more than his vigorous vocals is a flamboyant songwriting éclat that's equal parts theater song, Tin Pan Alley standards, Bacharach-style pop, and the cosmopolitan folk of his parents, Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III.
Then there is the wow of tender classical music and dynamic opera, which not only inspired him to write operas of his own (Prima Donna and Hadrian, the latter of which debuts during the 2018-19 season of the Canadian Opera Company), but also to collaborate with such ensembles as the Philly Pops on his own complex material, which they'll perform at the Kimmel Center on Friday.
"For my father, it was practically nonexistent anyway; the old man didn't really dig classical music," Wainwright says. "He appreciated it, but it wasn't really his gig."
Rufus' mother, on the other hand — the late, great Kate, one half of the McGarrigle Sisters – with whom he lived most of the time throughout his youth — was a different story. "She had a wide span of classical artists that she loved: Glenn Gould, which is required of all good Canadians, opera's grand tenors, from Pavarotti and Caruso. She loved Beethoven. I'd even argue that Beethoven was her favorite."
Wainwright says he feels the influence of his mother – who died in 2010 – more deeply every day. "I feel as if so much of what I do I do for her," he says softly. "It was true when she alive and even truer now."
Such parental inspiration, along with his musical training at McGill University in Montreal, gave the young Wainwright his breadth and feel for his own classical ideal.
"By age 13, I was attacked by opera – a bug that's never left me, as you can see with Prima Donna and Hadrian." He personalizes his newest opera by saying the Roman emperor, who ruled from A.D. 117 to 138, was a relevant and captivating force in how Wainwright lived as a gay man.
"Homosexuality is still questionably regarded," Wainwright says. "That, and being in America, which is also a fading empire, the topic is fresh. It is even more poignant when you consider how we are looking for wisdom from our leaders in the Trump era. Hadrian was as such."
In terms of his taste in classical music and opera — as a writer or arranger — he sees himself as a romantic traditionalist, rather than a traditional romantic. When performing his own songs with an orchestra, it is not what the material requires but rather what is already there that he must accentuate.
"So many of my songs already have rich classical undertones, but they might not come through for the average listener. Once you put an orchestra in there, however, it makes more sense. When I play with an orchestra, it is something of a homecoming for my songs. It is through the orchestra that I was inspired to write most of these songs anyway." Wainwright says that every orchestra is different, and that when there is trouble, he deals with it. "If they are not playing the right way or with the proper musicality, then that's their problem."
Wainwright has played shows with small combos, and gigs with just a pianist. He has also done big band sets (his Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall program) and dozens of orchestral pops events.
"At the end of the day, when you get up there before an orchestra, any orchestra, it is about doing a job," he says. "There is too much money to do otherwise. You can't [mess] around with an orchestra. It's a highly professional, result-orientated process. The orchestra is keenly aware of that fact and that they are there to fulfill their duties.
"And I love that about that world. When you are in that, you must immediately shed any rock-star attitude. That said, I can generally tell when or if the orchestra is with me or not. I'm not talking artistically; sometimes I just have to win them over more. … It's a mystery, actually, as to how that operates. But that is usually evident immediately, and we all do the best that we can. I mean, I have done orchestral shows where I sensed that the players didn't care for me at all, and we did the best shows ever, so who knows?"