Callas and Rufus Wainwright II

The July 2009 premiere of Prima Donna, the opera by the singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, called forth an unusual amount of snark, particularly among people who were not in attendance. I suppose it’s inevitable that Wainwright—gifted, productive, with admirers all over the world—would gall those whose life’s work is to bitch and cavil.

I happen to consider Wainwright a genius, a melodist with the potential to rival Irving Berlin and Verdi. That said, I’ve yet to form an opinion about Prima Donna as a whole because I have neither seen nor heard it. (The reviews tell little.) The opera will have its North American premiere later this year in Toronto and plays Sadler’s Wells next month.

A voice-piano version of the final aria from Prima Donna, “Les feux d’artifice t’appellent,” is a cut on Wainwright’s forthcoming CD, All Days are Night: Songs for Lulu. He has indicated that Prima Donna is based, in part, on Maria Callas’s 1968 interviews with Lord Harewood, and that the famous photo of Callas looking out of a Paris window (above) was an inspiration for this aria.

Let’s clear up one thing right away: That photo, widely used by biographers to evoke the supposed misery and isolation of Callas’s last years, does not depict her at her apartment on avenue Georges-Mandel (at right) or at the end of her life. The ironwork and Callas’s blouse in the iconic image match those in the sepia-toned picture at left, which shows Callas at the Hôtel Ritz Paris. (See the Colonne Vendôme out the window?)

The two Ritz photos, interior and exterior shots, seem to have been taken at the same session, probably (this is a guess) around 1964, when Callas was recording, concertizing, still active on the operatic stage, and hardly a victim of futility and despair.

Still, as I read “Les feux d’artifice” out of context, Wainwright projects onto this image the sad, withdrawn, waiting-for-death Callas of legend: “Callas was imprisoned all alone in her apartment in the XVIe arrondissement” (Pierre-Jean Rémy). The plot of Prima Donna, set in Paris on Bastille Day in 1970, is convoluted and involves a diva’s lost voice, a comeback attempt, frustrated passion, and a gracious withdrawal à la the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. The fictional timeline (last performance in 1964 or 1965) and various details (e.g. the diva’s ability to reach high notes offstage but not in performance) pointedly recall Callas.

As the opera ends, Régine Saint-Laurent (oy) has decided not to attempt a comeback and abandoned her dreams of love. She steps out onto her balcony and sings:
The fireworks are calling you:
Come down to the street!
The colors in the sky
Shine down upon the city,
The heavenly fire that was...
Come down to the street!
And love is no longer awaited.
Joy and happiness are everywhere.
All over Paris people are partying.
I stay. I watch.
Young men, come down with your mistresses.
Young women, make the most of the time that’s left.
I stay here. I look out of my big window.

The fireworks are over.
That didn’t last long.
For all its shimmering gorgeousness, “Les feux d’artifice” seems to me very dark. The overwhelming sensation is one of stasis—in the obsessive figure that underpins the aria; in Régine’s words (“Je reste. Je regarde… Je reste ici,” repeated and set at the aria’s climax); in the contrast between the singer, withdrawn, watching from her window, and the Parisians who heed the fireworks’ call and celebrate in the streets.

Even when Régine invites young people to seize the day, her words are hackneyed and faintly archaic (“vos maîtresses”) as if invoked without conviction—or, perhaps, quoted from one of her old rôles. What’s more, they are sandwiched between expressions of her immobility and implicitly call attention to her age and solitude. “Le feux du ciel qui fut” may be the sacred fire of music that once burned in Régine but now is spent.

When the fireworks end, all is silence. The music that accompanies Régine is shorn of its glitter and rhapsodic arpeggios. The aria’s last note is held an unusually long time—Wainwright consistently sings it thus in performance, suggesting that it is scored this way. It illustrates the word “longtemps” and, paradoxically, also the idea of finitude, sorely testing even a great singer’s breath and dying away in a whimper.


  1. That's a really beautiful (and dark, as you said) aria. Maybe a bit too modern to my ears - it's just a matter of taste, of course -, but I enjoyed it.

    Do you think Prima Donna will be presented in other countries soon? I've been reading its plot, and it would be very interesting to watch it on stage.

  2. Dear José Luiz: Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting. Apologies for the delay in responding to you: Blogger and the OS on my laptop don't get along.

    Rumor has it that "Prima Donna" will be performed at New York City Opera. As for performances elsewhere, Maestro Wainwright has a revamped website http://www.rufuswainwright.com and I imagine that's where we will find out about them!

    Tnx again, mlr