Prima Donna, The Story of an Opera - Documentary featuring the story of Rufus Wainwright’s first opera [84.00]
Directed by George Scott
Edited by Phil McDonald
Produced by Nick de Grunwald for Isis Productions Ltd in association with The Decca Music Group Limited and Sundance Channel
Bonus footage [44.00]
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/16:9
Sound format: LPCM stereo
Menu language: English
Subtitles (documentary only): English, French, German, Spanish
No booklet but a leaflet is included with a list of the documentary chapters, credits and details of the bonus footage in English
DECCA 074 3397 DVD [128.00]

I must start by confessing that when I first heard that Rufus Wainwright had composed an opera, my reaction was: “Okay, so who’s Rufus Wainwright?”. This was to the complete amazement of a friend who told me, thinking that I would be excited about it because I love opera. This friend then proceeded to instruct me on who Mr Wainwright is and what he does. I actually looked him up on Wikipedia and to my utter amazement the article about him is quite extensive and very detailed; needless to say that I felt ashamed for not having a clue about the artist or his music.

Following the above episode, I decided to listen to some of his work, expecting to dislike it, as I tend to with most pop artists. It is not that I think they are good or bad or that I am comparing them with great composers of the past and present; it is simply a matter of taste and pop music does not appeal to me in the same way that classical music and opera do. I must say though that to my complete surprise, I found myself enjoying some of Wainwright’s songs: there is a classical flavour to them, particularly when he accompanies himself on the piano and a certain dramatic quality in others, which is possibly the reason why some critics described Wainwright’s pop genre as operatic. The other interesting thing is that Mr Wainwright can actually sing (which is sadly not always the case with many pop artists) and he sings rather well, with a pleasant voice that encompasses a considerable range (in his own words an “insane range”!). So, I became curious and although, I have not managed it, I actually wanted to see the opera, particularly after reading the mixed reviews, which possessed an “insane range” of their own: Going from “a work of pure genius” to “failed to convince”; or from “beautiful, moving and challenging” to “pastiche of all his [Wainwright’s] favourite opera composers” or that “he [Wainwright] should consider studying composition”; this to cite but a few!

Prima Donna’s story is about a day in the life of an opera singer, who mysteriously stopped singing six years earlier and is anxiously preparing for her comeback. She falls in love with a journalist. There are four characters, no chorus and the libretto is in French. According to Wainwright himself, he was inspired by Maria Callas describing what it is to be a prima donna in her 1968 interview with Lord Harewood. To quote Wainwright’s own words, as he listened to Callas: “the story fell out of the Heavens and onto my lap, and the entire arc of the evening presented itself to me”. He states that the story is however not about Callas and that the character of the opera singer (the prima donna of the title) has a little bit of Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard), of the leading lady in the film Diva and also of himself. Apparently, Wainwright’s opera was originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, however, due to a dispute between Wainwright and the Met’s management over the fact that the libretto is in French the Met was not able to schedule the opera’s first performance in 2009 and the whole thing fell apart. This is the reason why the World Premiere took place in Manchester’s Palace Theatre, on 10 July 2009, during the city’s 2009 International Festival. Interestingly enough, this fact is hardly mentioned in the documentary and Wainwright refers to it only indirectly by stating his views on the English language not being suitable for opera, as it does not fall easily on the ear, which I must say I would tend to agree with.

From the DVD’s title, we must deduce that this is the story of an opera called Prima Donna, the first work of this genre composed by song-writer Rufus Wainwright. What I felt was that rather than being the story of Wainwright’s first opera, it was really Wainwright’s own story. He is honest in his opinions and his passion for music, singing and opera clearly comes across. What also emerges is a self-absorbed, self-centric personality and a rather large ego. It is definitely an interesting documentary though I am not sure I would classify it as revealing.

The film traces Wainwright’s love for opera from his childhood days; follows his relationship with his mother, his partner and his father. There are interesting but subdued contributions by the artists involved in bringing the opera to life: conductor Pierre-André Valade and soprano Janis Kelly who took the title role of the prima donna in the premiere. The opinions of director Daniel Kramer are more lively and give a better insight into what it meant for him to direct the piece and to work with Wainwright. We also hear from Wainwright’s family and friends who are all naturally proud of his achievements: his father Loudon, his sister Martha, his aunt Anna and his mother Kate McGarrigle; his partner, German Arts Administrator, Jörn Weisbrodt and his friend Bernadette Colomine who was also Wainwright’s co-librettist in Prima Donna.

Understandably, the contributions from his family, personal friends and partner are biased in favour of Wainwright’s talent and his opera. His mother, in particular, with whom he enjoyed a close, friendly relationship, is very emotional; she cries at the World Premiere, a touching moment that clearly any mother on the planet can relate to. This is made the more poignant because she died in January 2010 of a rare form of cancer. The film is dedicated to her memory.

George Scott, the documentary’s director, does a good job of mixing interviews of Wainwright talking about himself, alone or with family or friends, with clips of his songs; live concerts (these to me were the most interesting parts) and home-made films of Wainwright, his sister and cousins, dressed up, pretending they are enacting a big opera (Tosca is one of them). Presumably, Scott thought that the home-made films would give it a more personal, warmer touch better explaining why Wainwright is so fascinated with opera. It did not work. I found them unnecessary and self-indulgent and having no place in a documentary of this nature. Phil McDonald, the film editor, on the other hand, did an excellent job of putting all these fragments together in a fluid manner which certainly helps make for a logical narrative.

The film also contains some footage of the opera’s opening night and of rehearsals. These are very interesting and provide a good insight into the evolution of the piece and what it meant to work with Wainwright as a composer of dramatic opera. These episodes are however carefully edited so we do not really find out that much. I do not know whose idea it was to get Renée Fleming to contribute to the documentary but whoever the person is, he or she should be congratulated. Fleming is objective, articulate and knowledgeable in her opinions and comments. She definitely lends class and credibility to the film, logically to Wainwright, as a composer, and to his first opera, as a serious work.

I have not seen Prima Donna so I cannot comment on its merits but, if it is really true that Wainwright did everything himself, including orchestration, then this was a really great achievement, particularly if one bears in mind that he never studied composition. For me, the chapter I most enjoyed in the whole film was the final one, entitled “Fireworks”, which happens at the end of the opera, where the lead character, sings Les feux d’artifices. It is a moving, poignant piece and serves as a metaphor for the sad end of a career or a life.

Apart from the 84-minute documentary, there are 44 minutes of additional footage, so-called bonus material. This contains details of the Prima Donna workshops at Leeds and Sadler’s Wells; extra contributions from Wainwright’s mother and aunt and a short feature entitled The Art of Opera, where Wainwright explains his personal views on opera, what makes a grand opera or what attributes make one opera better than another. To my mind this was made superfluous after seeing how Wainwright and his partner turn up at the World Premiere of the piece: He is dressed as Verdi and his partner as Puccini. In fact, the DVD cover shows Mr Wainwright in a picture very reminiscent of a famous photograph of Giuseppe Verdi in his more advanced years.

On the whole, the documentary is compelling, well made and I liked it. However, at the end, a few questions began building up in my mind: Was it really necessary to create such a long documentary about one opera? Is it not too much ‘fuss’ about one composer and one work? After all, how many composers that are not dead have had the honour of being the subject of a DVD, which lasts in total slightly more than two hours? I could not think of anyone.

I would therefore say that if you are a committed Rufus Wainwright fan, this DVD is for you and, at the end of it, you will think that he is the greatest musical genius to have ever graced the face of the Earth. If you have seen the opera, then you will surely be interested in seeing some of the “behind the scenes” episodes. On the other hand, if, like me, you are not a fan and have not seen his opera, I dare say that although you will find it interesting, you will get eventually tired of what is an overlong self-promoting documentary.

Margarida Mota-Bull

On the whole, the documentary is compelling, well made and I liked it. However, you will eventually get tired of what is an overlong self-promoting documentary.