Wainwright celebrates a milestone birthday with friends in Madrid, Spain

Search the 2001 pop charts and you may recall that America’s taste in music was on a downswing: The number one song that year was Lifehouse’s Hanging by a Moment. Even if the song initially piques your nostalgia, by the second verse—which includes the phrase “completely incomplete”—you will also be reminded of why no one talks about Lifehouse anymore.

2001 was also the year that a 28-year-old Rufus Wainwright released his critically acclaimed sophomore album, Poses, which did not chart. In the twelve years since, Wainwright has released nine albums and composed and written the libretto for his premier opera, Prima Donna. The scion of the Wainwright-McGarrigle family has secured his place as a cultural icon, and is a testament to what it takes to make music that lasts. 

Wainwright is now a father and husband, and happier, he says, as he approaches the “best part of the novel.” He recently celebrated his 40th birthday with a days-long fete in Madrid. He was joined by his sister, Martha Wainwright, his aunt and several friends, including Dan Gillespie Sells of The Feeling. “All of the people who did come ended up going nuts,” Wainwright told me shortly after his return. “We ended the night at my friend’s apartment, singing my way into my old age.”

"I get frustrated and deterred by not being the star of the mainstream of the moment, because it is so pervasive. Why am I not up there with my sex tape?"

The celebration also included a showing of his opera and a concert at the legendary Teatro Real, attended by opera-star Placido Domingo, whom Wainwright personally invited. “I was king of the night,” Wainwright declared.

He can certainly be boastful, but his self-praise is always chaperoned by his anxieties. When our conversation turned to Lady Gaga, he remarked, “Dreams of being a wealthy pop star are really stupid if you want to do something great.” That statement was immediately followed by frustration that he himself never shot into pop superstardom. “I get frustrated and deterred by not being the star of the mainstream of the moment, because it is so pervasive. Why am I not up there with my sex tape?”

Wainwright is gracious and self-deprecating about the low points of his personal life, particularly the years he spent suffering from drug and sex addictions. “On a personal level, I was ready to call it quits at The Cock,” Wainwright laughs as he mentions the East Village sex club. “And I’m talking about the old ‘Cock.’ But I’ve seemed to rectify difference.” Wainwright discusses this time willingly, describing the turning points in his life as an “octagon.”

While 40 years is undoubtedly a marker in Wainwright’s professional life, the most important transition seems to be in his personal life, which has flourished in the past couple of years. In 2011, Wainwright fathered a daughter, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, with Lorca Cohen, the daughter of the celebrated musician Leonard Cohen. And in 2012, he married long-time boyfriend Jörn Weisbrodt.

“I am realizing these days that 40 is still very young,” Wainwright said quietly. “I will admit to waking up that morning of my 40th with my husband—having had too much red wine the night before with my sister—being on the verge of tears. I wasn’t going to call it off or anything, but being gay, married, and with a child, and having to write another opera, I thought, wait a minute, I think I want to go into porn now or something.”

Wainwright’s role in contemporary music is secure, but his aspirations are now in opera, a genre not friendly to the pop realm. Furthermore, success in opera is measured by a lifetime of work. “In that world, if you want to do something great, you got to live. Unlike the rock world.” His role models have always been in opera, including Verdi, who wrote his great operas in his ’70s and ’80s. 

For Wainwright, 40 is the second starting line. “Compared to most people who want to make it in the world of the arts, I’m a brilliant success,” He says assuredly. “As Judy Garland said, ‘I have the tenacity of a praying mantis.’”