Rufus Wainwright is a tough man to pin down. Even before his first opera, Prima Donna, in 2009, the New York–based singer-songwriter, 37, conjured a mystical blend of folk, pop, and Gilbert and Sullivan pomp. His latest venture is also his boldest—a crack at joining the ranks of Verdi, Berlioz, and Britten by setting the Bard to music in a Ravinia co-commission. In August, he performs his song cycle of Shakespearean sonnets there, alongside the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
You’ve played in Chicago a number of times. Where do you go for inspiration when you’re in town?
I love that big lima bean [Cloud Gate, in Millennium Park]. I’m mesmerized by it. I go to the Lyric. It’s a great hall. I would love to bring Prima Donna there. Coming to Ravinia has always been a high point of exploration in my career—especially because of that time of year. When it’s finally August and the weather is nice, it’s like the people are drunk.
You studied music at McGill University in Montreal but didn’t finish. Now that you’re writing full-blown orchestrations, do you wish you’d stayed in school?
Not at all. I left because I had my own sound. I didn’t need the theory.
I’m working on my next opera, but that’s top-secret.
Do you identify more as a pop artist or a composer?
I’m definitely more in the pop world. But I’m also of the mind that you write the best things before you die. I’d like to die an opera composer.
Three Shakespearean sonnets were featured on your album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu as a tribute to your mother, the late folk musician Kate McGarrigle. Why Shakespeare?
I was working with [theatre director] Robert Wilson in London for a Shakespearean song cycle for a show in Berlin. During that time, my mother was very ill. I couldn’t express what I was feeling, but Shakespeare could speak to this explosion of love I was experiencing for my mother at the time.
You’re now a father to a baby girl, Viva. What music do you play for her?
Haydn. He’s the best. And I sing to her a lot—French folk songs. They’re the same songs I sang to my mother as she was dying.
Any fantasies that your daughter might become a classical musician one day?
Oh, it would be great if she ended up as an opera singer. We could start by building her opera house on training wheels. But it’s just fine if she ends up an accountant, too.
GO Rufus Wainwright plays August 14th at Ravinia, $25–$50; ravinia.org.
Photograph: Courtesy of Ravinia Festival
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