Observations: A change of mood for Rufus

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The Independent Culture

Rufus Wainwright wants to "do classical". Where to start? At the top, of course: at the Verbier festival in the Swiss Alps, where Maxim Vengerov and Martha Argerich head a jaw-dropping roster of classical stars, and where he "feels like Heidi" in his little chalet. He admits that his classical training is limited, but reckons he "can bring something else to compensate". He makes his initial appearance before an audience of whom half are saying "who's he?" while the other half says "can this really be him?".

The audience is underwhelmed. First he sings three of his songs with the aid of a Philip Glass-style accompaniment on the piano, then, backed by the brilliant Verbier youth orchestra, a song by Berlioz in which his high notes sound – there's no other way to put it – like a dog howling at the moon. Finally, flanked by Brueggergosman and that illustrious operatic mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager, he essays Mozart's "Soave sia il vento": this ghastly moment is pure Jim'll Fix It.

Next night he's back, but more in command. He tries, and hilariously fails, to do another Berlioz song, and turns the celebrated Ebene string quartet into a motoric backing group, but once off into his personal balladry he weaves a wonderfully effective spell. The voice may be aggressively untrained, but it's genuinely musical; the little nods he makes towards "classical" are just that – a verbal reference, a token bit of coloratura on the end of a phrase; this is a high-calibre singer doing his thing. What has he learnt? Well, he's currently writing an opera, so he'll carry on doing classical for some time yet.