RUFUS WAINWRIGHT

Always thinking big

by

There’s no shortage of pop musicians who reached their creative peak in their 20s, then struggled to remain productive and relevant after the flush of youth failed them. Think of Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett and even John Lennon.

Perhaps because he takes his cues from what he calls the “ultimate blueprint” of classical music, which is less swayed by the fickleness of fashion than market-driven pop and is more patient with emerging talent, singer- songwriter Rufus Wainwright foresees his career following a different trajectory from those of some of his rock peers. At 34, he says he’s beginning to hit his stride.

“Your 20s should be your experimental time, and your 30s are when you really start going,” he says by phone before a gig in Hamburg, Germany, ahead of his upcoming Japan tour. “You’ve got to get better and better up until the day you keel over.”

And when it’s his time to finally leave the stage, Wainwright predicts he’ll go out with a bang.

“Like Beethoven, when I die, I’ll jump up and try to conduct the thunder and lightning that I hear,” he says, laughing.

His invocation of classical music is not surprising. Wainwright, whose latest album, “Release The Stars,” was released here in May, writes songs that are routinely described as lushly orchestral and sweeping in scope. It’s a sound that he naively thought he’d be getting away from by recording the followup to 2003’s “Want Two” in Berlin.

Looking back, he says he should have known that his choice of work environment wouldn’t be conducive to the stripped-down feel he initially sought for his first self-produced record. He “blames” Germany for the way “Release the Stars” turned out.

“I had this very ephemeral idea of coming to Berlin, getting a weird haircut, hanging out with teenagers and making some kind of hip thing,” Wainwright says. “But then, of course, I didn’t take care of the fact that I’m such a huge German opera fanatic — and that once I was actually on German soil, I would immediately swerve over to Bayreuth and the palaces of Frederick the Great and King Ludwig II of Bavaria. This big wave of German Romanticism really held me the minute I got here.”

Looking back, the Wagner-loving Wainwright says he should have known his musical passions would rule the day.

“It was sort of a silly dream for me to think that I could go to Germany and make a little, tiny album. For an opera lover, it’s really the land of cathedrals,” says the singer, who even took to wearing custom-made lederhosen during his sojourn.

But being a pop star isn’t the only goal on Wainwright’s agenda. Predictably perhaps, he’s set his sights on the classical world, though he’s not classically trained. As part of a project jointly overseen by New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater, he’s been commissioned to write an opera.

The work, tentatively titled “Prima Donna,” follows a day in the life of a singer who’s smitten with a journalist. Wainwright says he’s written the first act and most of the second act in sketch form and has almost finished the libretto. He estimates it’ll be a couple of years before the opera is ready. He’ll have more time to focus on it, he says, after his touring obligations largely come to an end next September.

“I intend to really turn my back to the pop world for a good year. I’ll probably do shows here and there to eat, but I’ll really hunker down and focus on the orchestration,” he says. “The big deal is the orchestration. It’s got to be viable. It can’t be Puccini-like.”

Wainwright acknowledges that he dares to dream of ranking among the great composers, but he adds that he won’t be bothered if he’s remembered as a singer-songwriter.

“I hail from a family of singer- songwriters. I’m proud of that lineage. But I also have to be a composer. I’m just an overachiever,” he says, laughing. “I’ve got to chill out one day — probably in my 40s.”

Rufus Wainwright performs Jan. 20, 5 p.m. at Diamond Hall in Nagoya (¥7,000; [052] 241-8118); Jan. 21, 7 p.m. at Namba Hatch, Osaka (¥7,000; [06] 6341-4506); Jan. 23, 7 p.m. at Tokyo International Forum Hall C (¥7,000; [03] 3402-5999). For more information, visit www.udo.jp/artist/RufusWainwright/index.html