Rufus Wainwright's tales of women and death

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The Independent Culture

US-Canadian artist Rufus Wainwright returns to the solitude of the piano for his latest album, saying the instrument became "a kind of cocoon" as he worked on the music while his mother battled hopelessly against cancer.

"All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu," a stripped-down record haunted by his mother's death, releases ahead of the London opening of his debut opera, "Prima Donna", the story of an ageing soprano in 1970s Paris.

At 36, the singer/songwriter has cemented a unique reputation on the pop-rock scene thanks to an intense voice and a penchant for theatrical arrangements.

An eclectic musician, he has produced a tribute concert to Judy Garland, put Shakespearean sonnets to song for theatre group Berliner Ensemble as well as penning his opera which debuted in Manchester last summer.

But for the creative dynamo, 2010 began with a tragedy after the demise of his mother, Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle.

"I finished the album and she died about three weeks later, so her death was always looming," Wainwright told AFP.

"The piano became a kind of cocoon or an egg, a nest where I could just be by myself."

The album, whose title refers to Louise Brooks ("the personification of the femme-fatale"), has an intensity reminiscent of American torch songs.

"All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu" could also have been titled "Five Intense Chicks", he said, "because there are all these women in my life and my imagination and they're all on this album: my mother, my sister, Lulu, Shakespeare's dark lady and prima donna."

The record's release precedes the London launch of a new production of his opera, which will premiere at Sadler's Wells theatre April 12.

"Operas have always come to my rescue emotionally whenever I've been in the most difficult of times," he said. "I treat it as a bit of religion and this is my chance to add to that religion, to write about those gods and create new ones."

Wainwright said however that his first foray into opera shattered some illusions about classical music. "I was struck by how rigid and how cold and intense it is," he said.

"Prima Donna" was originally commissioned by the Met, but when the prestigious New York institution saw that the opera was in the language of Bizet, it cancelled.

"It doesn't sound good in English. I'm a big fan of French opera," said Wainright, who is a self-confessed admirer of the 19th-century French composer Jules Massenet.

"It feels like there's a lot of room available in that world for new work," added the artist.

After London (April 12-17) and then Toronto (June 14-19), "Prima Donna" will play in the country of its native tongue.

Although Wainwright admits that writing an opera allowed him to "fall back in love with pop," he is keen to repeat the experience.

"I think the next time I'd like to actually clear the deck and really concentrate fully on an opera, probably stop pop for a while, like five years," the singer said.

Wainwright also hinted he is thinking of adapting the Marguerite Yourcenar novel "Memoirs of Hadrian."

"I've been thinking about writing a little bit, just because all the composers wrote. I love Berlioz's writings and Wagner's pretty interesting too, frightening but interesting still."

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