How We Met: Janis Kelly & Rufus Wainwright

'Janis just broke down. I knew then that she'd arrived at where she had to be for the role'


Janis Kelly, 54, is an opera singer who began her career at the English National Opera in the early 1980s, before joining David Freeman's Opera Factory. She has since had lead roles in numerous productions with the ENO, Opera North and the Royal Opera. Last year she played the central role at Manchester's world première of Rufus Wainwright's debut opera 'Prima Donna'. She lives in London with her husband and daughters

I knew of Rufus a long time before we met. I liked his music, read that he was writing an opera and got fascinated by it. This must have been three years ago. I sent a letter to him at the venue of his next gig in the US. In it, I just wished him luck and said that if he was in London and wanted to talk about opera, he could get in touch.

A year later, my agent rang up and asked, "What do you know about Rufus Wainwright?" My first thought was, "Oh my God, he got my letter!" Of course he hadn't, but I feel like I put a message out into the ether. Fixing up the audition with Rufus was difficult – it was on, it was off, his flights were changed. I had to be at the Royal College of Music, where I teach, so he had to come there in the end. I told him about the letter – he could have thought I was some kind of idiot or groupie, but he was flattered and now I know that he'd have written straight back had he got it.

In the beginning he was quite protective of his piece. He wasn't around during the first weeks of rehearsals and the director wanted to put the bare bones of what he, the director, wanted in there. There were conflicts, and in a way my job was to please them both. Rufus has lived with the piece for such a long time that he had a clear idea of what he wanted, but the director also showed him that there could be many more things going on at the same time and Rufus was good at compromising.

My favourite memory of Rufus is when he rented a house near Manchester during rehearsals for the première. We went out on to the hills for a walk, just looked at the countryside and said whatever came into our heads. There was no pretension, it was just having time to be with each other. That must have been when I told him I like thistles, because he bought me a lovely thistle brooch later.

I sang the last aria from the opera at the funeral of Rufus's mother [the folk singer Kate McGarrigle, who died in January], and at the wake. I was really glad to be there and he arranged a beautiful funeral for her. They are a very generous family – and that family extends to lots of other musicians who aren't relations; people are just drawn to them. Kate was at the hub of it, but Rufus has the same qualities.

Rufus Wainwright, 36, is a singer and composer. He began performing at 13 with the McGarrigle Sisters and Family, a folk group featuring Rufus, his sister Martha, mother Kate and aunt Anna. His 1998 self-titled debut earned him the title 'Best New Artist' from 'Rolling Stone' magazine. He lives in New York

The first time I met Janis was at the London College of Music. She was wearing a beautiful blue dress and had a warm, welcoming smile that put me at ease, but I could also tell that she was nervous too.

I'd been to many operas before, but to hear someone sing in a little rehearsal room was different. I didn't have another experience to compare it with, and I don't know if that worked for Janis or against her. Probably against her, because I guess I just thought all opera musicians are amazing and blow you off your feet.

I went to the piano to check out a section of the piece that's in an odd range, to see if she could hit those notes, and when she heard the chords, she instantly melted before my eyes. You could see the desire she had to sing it. She let the cat out of the bag a little bit, which is touching, but it's also dangerous to wear your heart on your sleeve like that – you become more vulnerable – so I appreciated her realness.

During rehearsals I was worried that she would be a little too nice. But that stiff Scottish upper lip kicked in and she got to be a little bit queeny, which the role needs. You've gotta be a bitch and she can do that sometimes. I know other great prima donnas, like Jessye Norman, who is the living incarnation of that diva quality, which I love – I'm a gay man, so I live for that. Janis can go there if she has to, but first and foremost she wants to be a good person and that was important, especially since the death of my mother.

As much as there's me, Maria Callas or even my mother in the main role, there's a lot of Janis in it too. I gained a lot of insight from her experience, so she became a part of the writing of the piece. I'm a man writing about a woman and she was basically the only woman there; without a strong female to guide us, it wouldn't have rung as true.

There's a moment in the opera where Janis's character has signed her album and is giving it away; it becomes a symbol of her career and she's basically saying, "I'm done." We were nearing the end of the piano rehearsals and Janis got to that part and just broke down. I knew then that she'd arrived at where she had to be for the role.

Rufus Wainwright's 'Prima Donna' is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 ( sadlerswells.com), from 12 -17 April. His album 'All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu' (Polydor) is released on 5 April, and will be performed by Wainwright at Sadler's Wells on 13 April

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