Page last updated at 16:01 GMT, Saturday, 11 July 2009 17:01 UK

Taking the 'P' out of 'Popera'

by Elizabeth Alker
6 Music News Reporter in Manchester

Rufus Wainwright has crossed fully into the world of high art, as his first ever opera has now launched at the Manchester International Festival.

Rufus Wainwright

It is not the first time the singer songwriter has dabbled with large scale orchestral works. He famously recreated Judy Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall concert for full choir and orchestral accompaniment and it's compositions such as this that have gained the title "popera."

However, there is not a hint of pop music in his new work Prima Donna, which is performed by the Leeds based Opera North and is showing at the Palace Theatre in Manchester.

The two hour long piece was initially commissioned by the New York Metropolitan Opera, who backed out of staging it when the bi-lingual Rufus insisted on writing it in French.

This is understandable though, since the story is set in France and tells the tale of the famous Parisian Soprano, Regine Saint Laurent and her struggle to make a comeback after losing her voice due to a broken heart.

"People crying"

Sub-titles projected onto screens at the side of the stage make the story easier to follow and there is humour as well as sadness.

These punters were both moved to tears and made to laugh as the more serious moments were soon dissipated by light comedy: "Looking round you could see people crying their eyes out. He really did inspire a strong emotional reaction," said one fan, while another added:

"It was really funny as well which made it all the more enjoyable and the audience just got right on board."

The entire cast is made up of five characters and most of the narrative is told through simple solo recitatives.

Original orchestration

These are intercepted by a handful of stunning arias, the best of which is saved until the end, when Regine ponders the end of her career and contemplates suicide whilst watching the fireworks on Bastille Day.

There is no chorus but Wainwright told the BBC he hoped the orchestration would bring the story to life: "The orchestration I did completely on my own. It's very rare even for some classical composers to do their own orchestration," he explained.

"In a Straussian fashion, I made sure there was a lot going on in the orchestra and that's an integral part of the drama."

The musical arrangements, plot and style of vocal delivery make Prima Donna a much more complex and traditional work than Monkey Journey To The West, the opera by Damon Albarn which was a big hitter at the last Manchester International Festival in 2007.

But there is still a nod to popular culture in there, as the fading diva Regine is reminiscent of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard - a film close to Rufus's heart: "Sunset Boulevard is fantastic. And you can't go wrong with a woman in a nightgown."

Elaborate sets

The stage set is elaborate and took five days to install. Wainwright explained how, with this production, Opera North had taken the show to whole new level: "I wrote this opera to take place in one room in one day and now it's an extremely layered dramatic show.

"I wanted to impart a sense of malleability or versatility so that who anyone who wanted to put it on could put their own stamp on it."

The cast were given a standing ovation and three curtain calls at the end of the show and Rufus Wainwright himself appeared in top hat and tails to take a bow.

Wainwright is never one to shy away from controversy and this work is certainly a statement piece. It's also taking him into territory he's wanted to explore for some time. But will it be the first of many similar, more classical creations:

"There was a moment in the middle of this process where I was sure there wouldn't be [another opera]. But once you've put all the effort in and wrestled that beast to the floor then the taste for it comes back."

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