He spoke to me while in Los Angeles, slightly out of breath and greeting the occasional fan that recognizes him. Rufus Wainwright has just completed his second opera, “Hadrian,” about the philhellene who ruled the Roman empire from AD 117 to 138. A few days prior, his cover version of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” was released online and on the side he is writing pop songs for his new album that will be ready next year.
Wainwright is returning to Athens to perform at Gazarte Friday and Saturday and I managed to catch him ahead of his departure. The occasion was an opportunity for an interesting conversation.
You’ve visited us twice in recent years. What are your thoughts on Greece?
I’ve performed at two of the best theaters in the world. The Lycabettus and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. At Lycabettus, the audience was not overwhelming, but I felt the enthusiasm of those that did show up. At the Odeon it was fantastic. The concert was sold out and everyone came dressed up nicely and I felt as if I was in the home of the gods. So I would say my visits to Greece just get better and better.
What can we expect to hear at Gazarte?
To tell you the truth, I have no idea. I recently completed my second opera titled “Hadrian,” after the Roman emperor. It has many references to Greek culture as Hadrian loved Greece very much. I will be only with my piano and my guitar in Athens, so I’d imagine that will give me the freedom to improvise.
What’s your biggest thrill while performing?
The odd dichotomy of being completely alone while at the same time feeling directly connected with others. It’s also amazing to see right before you so many happy faces.
Do you have much fun while you’re on tour? Has that changed since you first started out 20 years ago?
I don’t lose myself. So that’s a luxury. Luckily I’m not an artist that sells millions of records and fills stadiums, so I can play in more cozy settings and theaters while going out on tour whenever I want without someone telling me I have to because they’re making millions of dollars off my back. Thankfully I’ve been able to avoid getting into such a cycle so far.
You publicly supported Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign. Was that the first time you took such a strong public position in US politics?
Well, OK, I also spoke publicly against George W. Bush when he was elected. But last week when I saw Bush speak on TV, he seemed like Gandhi if you compare him to Trump. It’s crazy. Absolutely crazy. Things have escalated. If I’d become more politicized, it would be because I felt more at risk.
In your album “Going to a Town” you say, “I’m going to a town that has already been burnt down,” in a song about America released 10 years ago. What’s changed since then?
I’m even more angry and worried. From another perspective though, I’m optimistic, because with everything that’s going on, we have a chance to wake up and fight for our survival. To finally ask ourselves how it is we want to live our lives.
In recent years you’ve entered uncharted territory with your opera “Prima Donna” and released an album of tracks based on Shakespeare sonnets. What made you step so far out of your comfort zone?
I’m a huge fan of opera and have been since I was 13, as if I’d caught a sickness that’s never been cured. There are references to this dating back to my first albums. I didn’t want to reach the end of my career one day and wonder why I’d never written an opera. So I decided to try it, so that I could reach the end of my career and instead wonder why I’d never written a pop hit.
Indeed, none of your pop songs has been a massive hit…
Yes! I’m sure if that did happen, things would have been more complex. I’ve tried at times to write a hit, but luckily the artist in me is preoccupied with paying the rent.
Gazarte, 32-34 Voutadon, Gazi. June 2 & 3. Ticket prices range from 28 to 55 euros.