Elton John once called him the “greatest songwriter on the planet” and American-Canadian composer and vocalist Rufus Wainwright has certainly done much to live up to this lofy title. His newly released compilation Vibrate: The Best of Rufus Wainwright spans a 16-year career that has included forays into opera and collaborations with A-listers like David Byrne and Robbie Williams. We spoke with the perpetually charming Wainwright ahead of his March 25th Divadlo Hybernia show.
Last time you were in Prague you played the Estates Theatre. What was it like playing in the shadow of Mozart?
We are all always playing in the shadow of Mozart! Still, it was definitely a thrill to think that Don Giovanni had premiered in that theater and that Casanova was present that night! I wonder who was at my show?
And now you’re back. Did the success of the previous concert have anything to do with that?
I go where they tell me, and Prague—what a wonderful place to return to!
Did you have a chance to explore much of they city when you were last here?
I was very jet-lagged last time, which was great: got up at 5am, wandered through the city at dawn and ended up at Dvořák’s grave. The life I lead!
Given your remarkable piano compositions, it makes sense that you’d be well received throughout Europe. Who are your heroes of classical piano?
I grew up in Canada so Glenn Gould was pretty massive. [Argentine pianist] Martha Argerich is amazing. I love Prokofiev’s 3rd piano concerto (I think it’s the 3rd).
You have performed with some of the world’s finest symphony orchestras. Who will support you in Prague?
My sister Lucy [Wainwright Roche] is joining me on this tour. Also, Liza Minnelli has been known to show up…who knows.
You are writing your second opera about the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Will there lascivious toga-tearing and accessible arias to attract the not-so-opera-inclined?
Many of our readers are expatriates living in Prague. Where do you feel most at home these days (I’m thinking of the lyrics from “Going to a Town”—I’m so tired of America—any truth to that song)?
Montauk, New York. Although I still get annoyed by the USA, it’s amazing how much better it is under Obama.
You recently married your German partner. Any cultural relationship quirks that our readers might relate to?
You could have a meal on our toilet seat it’s so clean.
I saw you perform at the 2013 Kennedy Centers Honors for Billy Joel. Is he an inspiration?
I admire Billy, but my true hero was the great Nina Simone. The moment I heard her music I knew what to do.
You also did a Grammy-nominated tribute to Judy Garland and there’s a new track on Vibrate called “Me and Liza”. What draws you to the divas?
I do love the ladies; the gay thing might have a bit to do with it.
Who else is on your playlist of essential chanteuses?
Other names: Callas, Dietrich, Peggy Lee.
But of course you have your own entirely distinct sound. How do you combine all those musical elements and influences to get there?
Unlike almost every other aspect of life, music has retained its power since it operates on another plane. Therefore there’s so much to choose from over the history of humanity. Not sure you can say the same thing about sports.