“Prima! Rufus! Judy!” may sound like an odd name for a Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts show, but it’s a pretty straightforward description of what audiences can expect. The two-part concert starts with sopranos Melody Moore and Kathryn Guthrie, along with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, performing selections from singer-composer Rufus Wainwright’s opera, “Prima Donna.” Then Wainwright himself will reprise excerpts from Judy Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall concert.
Wainwright, the son of folk singers Katie McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, first fell in love with Judy Garland when his family gathered around the television set to watch “The Wizard of Oz” at Easter.
“Watching ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was a big event in my house,” he says. “This was a time before VHS, DVRs, and movies on television. I wasn’t that familiar with her concerts or records.”
When the country was at a low point after 9/11, Wainwright went back to Garland.
“The country had just suffered a gaping wound inflicted on us by Middle Eastern terrorists,” says Wainwright. “This coincided with the Bush-Cheney years. I wanted to listen to music from a more hopeful, effervescent time. It was really about my love for America.”
Wainwright would initially only perform Garland’s songs at parties. He finally was persuaded to sing them at Carnegie Hall in 2006, during two sold-out concerts.
Wainwright clarifies that he “does not impersonate Garland, but sings in her style.”
“Garland was all about the voice,” he says. “’Prima Donna’ is about an aging opera diva, who is dealing with her declining physicality affecting her voice. I was inspired to write the opera by a series of interviews that Maria Callas gave in the ’70s. Then I decided to make it more anonymous.”