Rufus Wainwright: Song in his heart

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Extravagant, inspired and wildly romantic, the performer who takes his cue from Judy Garland walks his own yellow brick road

The organisers of the Manchester International Festival have a knack for combining high art and popular culture when commissioning their programme.

This year, for the second biennial festival, they persuaded Kraftwerk and Steve Reich to collaborate for a performance inside the Manchester Velodrome, which also featured the GB cycling team whizzing round the track. Mercury Prize-winners Elbow played with the Hallé Orchestra. Film-maker Adam Curtis, theatre company Punchdrunk and Damon Albarn put together a genre-bending drama-documentary piece, It Felt Like a Kiss, in the disused Quay House building.

And last night saw the premiere of Prima Donna, an opera composed by the mercurial singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Prima Donna is a title that could easily be applied to Wainwright himself, a dazzling, flamboyant performer whose ego is undercut by irrepressible charm and compelling honesty. Concomitant with the Manchester Festival's tastes, his signature "poperatic" style seamlessly marries high culture to low.

Wainwright may not be quite mainstream, but his outsized personality and multifaceted songs have endeared him to the pop-cultural pantheon. His friend Elton John counselled him during a period of drug addiction; his concert film was produced by Sam Mendes; Alan Yentob recently made an Imagine... profile on him for the BBC.

As long ago as 2005, the Pennsylvania Ballet produced 11:11, a performance set to his songs. And earlier this year, he collaborated with Brecht's Berliner Ensemble and the iconoclastic US stage director Robert Wilson on dramatic interpretations of Shakespeare's sonnets in Berlin. Wainwright remains a cult performer, but one who has earned the confidence of a superstar.

The scion of an American-Canadian folk dynasty, he was born in Rhinebeck, New York, in July 1973, to the singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. Fine musical stock, though hardly the sort to spawn a composer of opera. Rufus's competitive spirit is doubtless roused by having two younger siblings also in the music business: Martha Wainwright, and the up-and-coming Lucy Wainwright Roche, Loudon's daughter with singer Suzzy Roche.

Loudon and Kate divorced when Rufus was three years old, and he and Martha spent most of their childhood living with their mother in Montreal, Canada. The Wainwright-McGarrigle inter-clan relationships were always played out in song. When Rufus was still being breastfed, his father wrote the, in hindsight, rather ironically titled "Rufus Is a Tit Man"; on his 2004 album Want Two, Rufus included a song about his childhood antagonism with Martha entitled "Little Sister"; "Bloody Motherfucking Asshole", the title track of Martha's debut album, was supposedly about Loudon.

While many of Wainwright's songs sound as if they're tied to an earlier time, he has also produced unmissable covers of songs by contemporary artists, including his own father. Loudon describes Rufus's recording of his song "One Man Guy" as "the definitive version". He has recorded at least two Leonard Cohen covers: "Chelsea Hotel #2" – Rufus lived in the titular Manhattan building for six months in 1999 – and "Hallelujah", which was popularised by the late Jeff Buckley, whom Wainwright knew, and upon whose death he wrote "Memphis Skyline".

More recently, Rufus's lyrics have touched on Kate's recurring battle with cancer; his life has always been laid bare in his music. "Millbrook", from his self-titled debut, was about his time at Millbrook boarding school in upstate New York. His parents, he claims, were not overjoyed when he came out as gay while still a teenager. But he remained celibate for seven years after suffering a nasty experience on a visit to London to see his father when he was 14: having picked up a man in a bar, he was sexually assaulted and robbed in Hyde Park, escaping only when he faked a seizure.

Wainwright had been performing from the age of six, touring with his mother, sister and Aunt Anna as The McGarrigle Sisters and Family. Despite failed stints studying piano at two Montreal universities, he became a regular artist on the city's club circuit. Thanks to his father's contacts, a demo tape found its way to a DreamWorks executive, who signed him to the company's record label. Wainwright moved to New York in 1996, where he set about recording his first album.

The majority of 1998's Rufus Wainwright concerned his first serious relationship with a boyfriend immortalised in the song "Danny Boy". While the rest of New York's scenesters were gearing up for the garage rock revival, Wainwright was instead writing so-called "baroque pop": heavily orchestrated, influenced by opera and even religious music, and overlaid with Wainwright's own spectacular, swooning vocals.

The style reached its apotheosis with the back-to-back albums Want One (2003) and Want Two (2004), which, with a characteristically camp pre-Raphaelite sleeve design, was later released as a double album. Want marked Wainwright's emergence as a star on this side of the Atlantic; he now enjoys greater recognition here than at home in the US, where he has never found his way to the mainstream.

Yet it was in New York that Wainwright made his first public foray back into the musical heritage that informs his own oeuvre. In June 2006, he played two sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall, where he performed a "cover version" of Judy Garland's famous 1961 concerts in the same venue. He relished the original costume changes, donning lipstick, stilettos and tights to perform the show tune "Get Happy!". Martha, meanwhile, joined him on stage to sing "Stormy Weather", while Kate played piano for his rendition of "Over the Rainbow".

At the time of the Carnegie Hall shows, Wainwright said he simply wanted to resurrect Garland's singing style. "Rod Stewart or Michael Bublé or Harry Connick Jr [are] all trying to be Frank Sinatra," he told an interviewer. "And nobody's trying to be Judy. I want to bring back the more pathetic and wanting performer."

But Garland's story, let alone her music, had much else to recommend it to Wainwright. The death in 1969 of one of the original gay icons is sometimes cited as a cause of the Stonewall riots a week later. Though many younger gay men shunned the "friend of Dorothy" stereotype (named after her character in The Wizard of Oz), Wainwright – perhaps courting controversy – said he believed that gay culture should return to its more promiscuous roots, and embrace the "Judy aesthetic".

Moreover, Garland had died at 47 from a drug overdose. Wainwright had recently recovered from his own addiction to crystal meth, a stimulant associated with the gay club scene, which had almost destroyed him in the period around Poses. In 2002, he briefly suffered blindness as a result of his drug abuse, and eventually went into rehab in Minnesota. Though he has rarely discussed his former addiction in interviews, it inevitably made its way into his music. "Everything it seems I like is a little bit... harmful for me," he wrote in "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk".

Opera was one of Wainwright's first loves. In Yentob's programme, Wainwright and his mother sit listening to an old 12-inch vinyl of an aria by the tenor Benjamin Gigli – the first record to catch a young Rufus's imagination. His own first opera tells the story of an ageing prima donna, who falls in love with a journalist when he comes to interview her about her comeback performance.

Prima Donna was first commissioned by New York's Metropolitan Opera, but the bilingual Wainwright got into a spat with the Met's general director Peter Gelb after he delivered his libretto in French. Much to the writer's chagrin, the Met declined to perform the piece, and it has ended up – fortuitously for UK audiences – in Manchester. Damon Albarn's opera Monkey: Journey to the West was first performed at the festival in 2007, later touring to London and the US and becoming an album, so who would bet against Wainwright's composition ending up back in New York?

Originally inspired by watching footage of Maria Callas, Wainwright has said Prima Donna is also "very, very revealing about my inner life and my experience in show business". Staging the opera has been a struggle for its creator, but no doubt the experience will, like everything in Wainwright's past, find its place in his musical future.

A life in brief

Born: 22 July 1973, Rhinebeck, New York. Son of singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. Brother to singer Martha.

Education: He began learning the piano at the age of six, and by his early teens was touring with his mother. At 14, Wainwright earned a Juno (Canadian Grammy) nomination as Most Promising Young Artist and a Genie (Canadian Oscar) nomination for his performance of his own song "I'm a-Runnin'". He later attended the prestigious Millbrook School in New York state and briefly studied music at Montreal's McGill University.

Career: In 1995 he signed a recording contract with DreamWorks, which led to the release of his highly successful self-titled debut album in 1998. After some time off in the late 1990s because of drug addiction he returned to the music scene in 2003 with Want One and its thematic sequel Want Two. Wainwright began writing his first opera, Prima Donna during his 2007-8 tour, which is being performed at the Manchester International Festival.

He says: "Frank Sinatra has passed on the torch to me. But little did he know that he'd be passing it on to a gay opera queen."

They say: "As far as advice? I ask him for advice." His father Loudon

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