Ten whopping minutes. That's how much time the Mercury got to interview singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright. But, as Wainwright's songs attest, he can cram a lot of thoughts into a short span of time.
Despite being the child of folk musicians Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, Wainwright's life hasn't been easy. He was sexually assaulted at 14, a meth addict at 27, and perhaps the only popular performer who's been openly gay from the beginning of his career.
A cult favorite with five albums and a string of small-scale tours, Wainwright scored a triumph in 2006 recreating Judy Garland's famed concert at Carnegie Hall. While he didn't have the pipes to belt like the legendary diva, Wainwright delivered the tender vulnerability that Garland specialized in.
The following year, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned Wainwright to compose a piece. The resulting libretto, written in French, was dropped by the Met on the grounds that an American opera had to be sung in English.
The 37-year-old returns to Portland for opening night of PICA's TBA Festival. Performing with the Oregon Symphony, the event is billed as "Classical Rufus," but also includes numbers from his pop records, plus soprano Janis Kelly singing excerpts from Wainwright's opera, Prima Donna. In French.
Wainwright's reedy voice is distinct, but it still caught me by surprise when I heard him on the phone.
MERCURY: Your opera Prima Donna is about the resurrection of a diva. Why do gay men love divas?
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: Basically a diva is someone who, on one hand, is perhaps a lot to take, but on the other is absolutely necessary. Gay men are somewhat chided for being over the top... but then they are also very much required to lighten up the occasion. So I think a lot of divas have the same sort of double-edged sword that gay men have in society.
When have you acted like a diva? (Besides only granting me 10 minutes.)
There are two definitions of diva. One is the pesky, overbearing megalomaniac, and the other is an incredibly dedicated artist and talented force of nature. I work really hard at what I do and I'm dedicated to it 100 percent. If that's what being a diva is, then I'm guilty.
What was it like growing up with a name that rhymed with "Doofus"?
I'm from Canada where they don't really use that term. [But] Rufus is a name that you have to fill into. You can't be called Rufus and be a wallflower. You have to make a statement. So it's a lot of work.
You've been openly gay since the beginning of your career. Any words of advice for Mika?
I think it's a trade-off. If you're openly gay you're going to get long-term fans who are really supportive for you being honest. But you're going to sell more records at the top of your game if you're ambiguous about your sexuality.
Are you sorry you made that choice?
I'm not sorry, but I do believe I would have sold more records if I had manipulated it somewhat. I just didn't have the capacity to do that.
What about Justin Bieber? Do you think he's gay?
I think he's a lesbian. That's what he looks like.