Prima Donna (opera)

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Prima Donna
Opera by Rufus Wainwright
  • Bernadette Colomine
  • Rufus Wainwright
Language French
Premiere July 2009
Manchester International Festival, United Kingdom

Prima Donna is an opera composed by Canadian-American singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright to a French language libretto which he co-authored with Bernadette Colomine. It is about "a day in the life of an aging opera singer", anxiously preparing for her comeback in 1970s Paris, who falls in love with a journalist.[1][2][3] It premiered at the Palace Theatre, Manchester on July 10, 2009 during the Manchester International Festival. The U.S. premiere was presented by New York City Opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on February 19, 2012.[4]

In March 2014, Wainwright began raising funds via PledgeMusic to record a two-disc album recording of the opera.


In an attempt to bring younger audiences into the realm of opera, Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb and André Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, held meetings with several contemporary artists to discuss possible contributions to their innovative commissioning project. According to Bishop, each team would be offered a $50,000 commission and the entire project was estimated to cost around $2 million, split by the Met and Lincoln Center Theater.[5] Each team or composer was expected to submit a piano-vocal score without a timetable, which would then undergo workshops overseen by LCT. By June 2007, Wainwright was the furthest along of all the contributing artists, having already started the writing process and revealing 30 minutes of excerpts to officials associated with the project.[5] By December 2007, Wainwright stated he'd "written the first act and most of the second act in sketch form and has almost finished the libretto", and that he'd have more time to dedicate to the project once his tour schedule completed.[6] Wainwright had completed piano and voice parts by February 2008, and began tackling orchestrations.[7]

With a workshop scheduled for January 2009, Wainwright revealed in a Brazilian TV show interview that his opera would premiere in Manchester, United Kingdom in July 2009. He stated the world premiere would be "somewhere small so that if it's a complete failure, nobody [would know] about it".[8]

Separation from the Met[edit]

Wainwright at the Metropolitan Opera opening in 2008

In August 2008, it was revealed that Wainwright dropped plans to compose a work for the Metropolitan Opera in a dispute over the language of the libretto and the potential date of production. Wainwright wanted the opera to be in French, while the Met and LCT insisted on English.[3] According to Gelb, "presenting a new opera that is not in English at the Met, when it could be in English, is an immediate impediment". While Wainwright was initially open to the idea of translating the text into English, he said the French became "too entrenched in the music". In addition, the Met wouldn't be able to premiere Prima Donna earlier than the 2014 season, and Wainwright insisted he "wanted to get it out as soon as possible".[3] Both Wainwright and Gelb have stated there are no hard feelings and they are sorry the collaboration did not work out as originally planned. Wainwright confirmed that the premiere would still be held in July 2009 at the Manchester International Festival in the United Kingdom.[3]

In October 2008, it was announced that the work would be produced in partnership with Opera North as a joint production commission by the Manchester International Festival, Melbourne Festival Australia and Luminato Festival Toronto, with Pierre-André Valade conducting the orchestra, Daniel Kramer directing, designing by Antony McDonald, and Janis Kelly performing the lead role alongside Rebecca Bottone, William Joyner and Jonathan Summers.[9][10] The Guardian stated Wainwright was working with two student assistants from Yale, but that he would be orchestrating the opera himself. With the first act already orchestrated and vocal score with piano reduction almost completed, the Manchester International Festival requested delivery of a full score in February 2009. Like Wagner, Wainwright wrote both the libretto and music, but admitted "writing words [was] much harder than writing music".[2] He also claimed that arias would be clearly defined and that no microphones or amplification would be utilized. Following the Manchester premiere performances, London performances at Sadler's Wells Theatre were scheduled for April 2010,[11] and the North American premiere took place June 1010 at the Luminato festival in Toronto, with Wainwright present.[12]

In December 2009, Sundance Channel aired a 90-minute documentary directed by George Scott titled Prima Donna spotlighting the history of Wainwright's career and his attempt to "create classical opera from scratch".[13]

Further performances[edit]

Following the Manchester premiere, London performances at Sadler's Wells Theatre were held in April 2010,[11] and the North American premiere took place June 2010 at the Luminato festival in Toronto, with Wainwright present.[12] Prima Donna had its NYC debut on February 19, 2012 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with performances running through the 25th.[14]

Prima Donna's revival[edit]

In 2015, Wainwright launched a new version of his first opera, accompanied by a film directed by Francesco Vezzoli, featuring Cindy Sherman as the Prima Donna.[15] The finale was shot in Paris during spring 2015 and produced by Petite Maison Production, before it premiered in Athens in September.


Role Voice Type Premiere Cast –
July 2009[16]
NYC Cast –
February 2012[16]
Régine Saint Laurent, an operatic soprano soprano Janis Kelly Melody Moore
Marie, her maid soprano Rebecca Bottone Kathryn Guthrie Demos
Philippe, her butler baritone Jonathan Summers Randal Turner
André Le Tourner, a journalist tenor William Joyner Taylor Stayton


Place: The Paris apartment of Régine Saint Laurent, the world's most acclaimed operatic soprano
Time: Bastille Day, 1970

From the Manchester International Festival:

"As early-morning light floods into a Paris apartment, a woman struggles to rouse herself from a fitful night's sleep. Once a soprano with a powerhouse voice and a reputation to match, she's now a forlorn figure, disdained by critics and forgotten by audiences. But the diva is determined to prove her doubters wrong: all she asks is a chance to reprise the role that made her reputation all those years ago..."[16]


In March 2014, Wainwright began raising funds via PledgeMusic to record a two-disc album of the opera. A portion of the funds will benefit the Kate McGarrigle Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Wainwright and his sister Martha Wainwright to raise money to combat sarcoma. The organization is named after Wainwright's mother, Kate McGarrigle, who died from the rare form of cancer in 2010.[17] Pet Shop Boys vocalist Neil Tennant will be contributing to the album.[18]


  1. ^ Barnes, Lindsay (August 9, 2007). "Rueful Rufus: Wainwright savors life's battles". The Hook. Retrieved August 9, 2007.
  2. ^ a b Christiansen, Rupert (October 9, 2008). "Rufus Wainwright reveals his Wagnerian side". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved October 9, 2008.
  3. ^ a b c d Wakin, Daniel J. (August 27, 2008). "Pop Singer Drops Plan to Compose for the Met". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved November 19, 2008.
  4. ^ "NYCO Presents US Premiere of Rufus Wainwright's PRIMA DONNA, 2/19-25". February 19, 2012. Retrieved March 8, 2012.
  5. ^ a b Wakin, Daniel J. (July 3, 2007). "Met Opera's Commissions Show Signs of Progress". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved November 19, 2008.
  6. ^ Gabel, Wayne (December 27, 2007). "Always Thinking Big". The Japan Times. Retrieved November 19, 2008.
  7. ^ Patterson, Penny (February 28, 2008). "The Eldest of the Wainwright Brood Talks Writing, Touring, and Saving the Planet". Santa Barbara Independent. Retrieved November 19, 2008.
  8. ^ Bourne, Dianne (August 19, 2008). "Diary: Rufus's small compliment". Manchester Evening News. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved February 5, 2009.
  9. ^ Higgins, Charlotte (October 9, 2008). "From pop to opera: petrified Rufus Wainwright embraces 'the dark religion'". The Guardian. London: Guardian Media Group. Retrieved November 19, 2008.
  10. ^ "News: The Moment You've Been Waiting For!". October 9, 2008. Retrieved October 9, 2008.
  11. ^ a b "Prima Donna in London at Sadlers Wells". December 11, 2009. Retrieved December 21, 2009.
  12. ^ a b Farquharson, Vanessa (March 30, 2009). "A new tune for Rufus?". Canwest. Retrieved March 31, 2009.
  13. ^ Stuever, Hank (December 21, 2009). "Review of 'Prima Donna,' with Rufus Wainwright, on Sundance". The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company. Retrieved December 21, 2009.
  14. ^ "New York City Opera / Production Detail / Prima Donna". Retrieved January 8, 2012.
  15. ^
  16. ^ a b c "Manchester International Festival Events - Prima Donna". Manchester International Festival. 2009. Archived from the original on February 1, 2009. Retrieved October 10, 2008.
  17. ^ Gioia, Michael (March 12, 2014). "Rufus Wainwright Raising Funds to Record Opera Prima Donna". Playbill. Retrieved March 13, 2014.
  18. ^

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