Lots of pop artists are frustrated opera singers who load up their songs with melisma and melodrama. The results usually sound more like Ethel Merman than Kathleen Battle.
But Rufus Wainwright is the rare act who blends opera and pop without coming off like a poseur.
The key is subtlety. Over the course of five albums, the 34-year-old singer has sneaked bits of opera into a collage of styles that includes folk, cabaret and orchestral rock `n’ roll.
But now he’s ready to dive headfirst into the opera house. The Metropolitan Opera of New York has commissioned him to compose a full-length work, which he’s tentatively titled “Prima Donna.”
He’s not daunted by the task, he says, because opera and pop are actually quite similar.
“Opera was really a Top 40-type of music for a good 200 years. It’s where all the top pop songs came out of,” he says by phone from San Francisco before a recent show there.
“People borrow a lot of the tricks from opera without even knowing it, whether it’s juxtaposing comedy with tragedy, or using a girl backup singer, or just imbuing the passion of the world into a two-minute song.”
Critics often rave about his opera-tinged pop. England’s Observer newspaper gave five stars to his latest CD, “Release the Stars,” calling it “ambitious, vain, beautiful and frequently magnificent.”
But his sales have yet to catch up with the glowing adjectives. “Release the Stars” fell off the Billboard 200 soon after it debuted.
When the singer calls himself a “ripened pop star,” he’s quick to add “in my own mind ... not on the charts.”
“A lot of people think I’m arrogant, but I’m really just telling the truth about what I do and how good it is,” he says. “The biggest thing I hate in life is false modesty.”
The son of noted folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, he’s been releasing CDs since 1998’s “Rufus Wainwright.” For a while, though, it looked as if his career might be tragically short.
By 2002, he’d become so addicted to crystal meth, cocaine and booze he went temporarily blind. His subsequent monthlong stint in rehab didn’t grab headlines the way Britney’s and Lindsay’s have - a fact he’s grateful for.
“When the media talks about people’s drug use, it’s like they’re really waiting for the next disaster,” he says. “It’s really endemic of a bigger issue: So much of society has been defaced and degraded that I really think it’s the fall of the American empire.”
Then he laughs. “Now I’m getting all operatic,” he says.
Though he doesn’t talk about whether or not he’s still sober, he’s happy to discuss his love life. Since 2005, he’s been in a relationship with Jorn Weisbrodt, a German concert manager who’s the subject of the “Stars” track “Slideshow.”
“It’s affected my songwriting greatly,” he says. “I’ve written a couple of beautiful love songs about my beautiful man. But there’s still a bit of misery. You don’t lose that when you get a boyfriend: There’s still plenty of misery for everyone.”
He’s written often about the thin line between love and pain, including his thorny relationship with his dad and the trauma he felt after his parents divorced in 1979.
In “Dinner at Eight” (2003) he described his father as boxing foe and sang “You, in fact, were the one long ago who left me.” In another song from the same album he sang “I really don’t want to be John Lennon or Leonard Cohen/I just want to be my dad, with a sprinkling of my mother.”
It’s part of a long Wainwright tradition dating back to Rufus’ infancy, when Loudon wrote “Dilated to Meet You” and “Rufus Is a Tit Man” (a title that eventually proved to be wrong). Later, when Rufus was a teenager, he dissected their love-hate relationship in “A Father and a Son.”
Today, Rufus describes his relationship with his dad as “diplomatic.”
“We’re two alpha males,” he says. “We have our territory, and he’s a man of few words - a rock, for better or worse.”
And while he doesn’t rule out writing more songs about his dad, he’s wary of “dipping into that well too often.”
“Sometimes, as a songwriter, you have to go there,” he says. “But you have to be very careful because when you draw blood, it comes from somewhere.”