Rufus Wainwright: French Opera rejected

Metropolitan Opera shuns Rufus Wainwright's French libretto
Henry Samuel in Paris
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 02/09/2008

New York's Metropolitan Opera has turned down an opera by singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright because he wrote it in French and refused to translate the libretto into English.

The Met reaction turns the tables on the French-speaking world and its increasingly desperate official attempts to stem the global linguistic hegemony of English. "Presenting a new opera that is not in English at the Met when it could be in English is an immediate impediment to its potential success with audiences," Met manager Peter Gelb told the New York Times. "I hoped he would switch over, but he was determined to do it in French," he said.

Mr Wainwright, who is half American, half Canadian and raised in Francophone Montreal, has written most of the libretto for Prima Donna – about a day in the life of an ageing opera star in 1970s Paris.

Initially open to the idea of translating it, he said the French had become too "entrenched" with the music to change it. Mr Wainright will premiere his work, in French, in the UK next July at the Manchester International Festival.

The 35-year old pop star and gay icon has written songs for the soundtracks of Shrek, Moulin Rouge and Brokeback Mountain, and recently wrote three songs for Disney's animated Meet the Robinsons.

His 2007 album Release the Stars reached number two in the UK. Mr Wainwright, a recovering drug addict, is the son of Canadian singer Kate McGarrigle and American singer-actor Loudon Wainwright III, and often performs with his sister Martha on backup vocals.

An opera fanatic, some of his earlier songs have been described as "popera" given the lush orchestration and heart on-the-sleeve tenor voice. One track, Barcelona, features lyrics from the libretto of Giuseppe Verdi's opera Macbeth.

He was one of several pop and stage composers commissioned to write new works in English by the Met and Lincoln Center two years ago. News of the project's demise reached France yesterday, with Libération newspaper describing it as a "sad declaration for our national language".

The paper went on to pooh-pooh the Met's English-language adaptation of Mozart's the Magic Flute. It came, ironically, the day after France's education minister unveiled a plan to offer French secondary school pupils free intensive English language courses during school holidays in February and the summer. As 12 million French pupils began their new school year yesterday, Xavier Darcos said that it was a "handicap" to speak poor English. His admission would have been unthinkable under former president Jacques Chirac, who famously walked out of an EU summit two years ago when a fellow Frenchman spoke English. "While well-off families pay for study sessions abroad, I'm offering them to everyone right here," said Mr Darcos.

His initiative came amid reports that English has invaded French pop music as never before. This year's French entry for the Eurovision song contest was in English for the first time – to howls of disapproval from linguistic purists. Sébastien Tillier's song Divine, which includes smatterings of French, came 19th.

Meanwhile, les Francofolies, a summer rock festival in Western France created to promote French-speaking talent, welcomed 17 groups singing in English last month. The festival's director Gérard Pont said the festival had resigned itself to turning a blind eye to the language used by home-grown singers. "It's a shame for French-language songs, but loads of young French groups choose to sing in English and have a public," he told Le Monde yesterday. "If we decided to banish English from the Francofolies, it would be suicide"."

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