Rufus Wainwright Brings Music to Shakespeare’s Sonnets

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Are you sure/That we are awake? It seems to me/That yet we sleep, we dream,” Demetrius proclaims in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which a young Rufus Wainwright watched with his sister Martha and their father, Loudon Wainwright III, in London’s Regent’s Park about three decades ago.

“There was this incredible symbiosis between the outdoors and Shakespeare’s words and the play,” Wainwright, 42, recalls, “that entranced me from then on.”

And it’s that sense of a Shakespearean dream that permeates the singer’s latest disc, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespearean Sonnets (April 22, 2016), on which Wainwright sets a selection of the Bard’s verses to music ranging from classical to opera to more contemporary fare. The fantasy begins with the album cover – a tribute to the grandeur of Shakespeare’s age featuring a painting of the singer in a gilded getup reminiscent of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen.

“One friend was very funny and said, ‘I love the painting, but also it kind of looks like what you would have looked like if you had become a total alcoholic,'” Wainwright laughs. “There’s a bit of that look, which is, you know, maybe appropriate.”

The Shakespearean ideal, of course, truly comes alive in the music, a wonderfully eclectic mix of styles and sounds that in some ways mirrors Shakespeare’s own diverse body of work. Wainwright notes that the first sonnet on the album is about falling asleep while the last deals with waking from a dream. “And within that surreal dreamscape, anything’s possible,” he says, “and you can have William Shatner coming in after a classical waltz.”


Photo credit: Matthew Welch. Deutsche Grammophon.

Leave it to Wainwright, whose music ranges from pop to opera to the songs of Judy Garland, to unite Shatner and Shakespeare. He first put sonnets to music for a 2009 Berliner Ensemble production by famed director Robert Wilson. The San Francisco Symphony followed, and now the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death yields an entire album, which includes guest performances by his sister as well as Capt. Kirk, Carrie Fisher, Helena Bonham Carter and soprano Anna Prohaska among others.

The sonnets took on a deeper meaning for Wainwright as his mother, the late singer Kate McGarrigle, battled cancer while he composed the songs. “Thankfully, the words of the sonnets were able to not so much soothe me but … I could relate to them on such a profound level due to what I was going through.”

And when it came to scoring this Shakespearean dream, the key, Wainwright notes, was to not overthink it and follow the Bard’s lead. “With that sleep idea in mind, all bets were off, and I could use any kind of influence that I wanted to,” he laughs. “That’s what dreaming is. It’s just a mess.”

A version of this article appeared in our May 2016 issue with the headline, “Lend Him Your Ears,” p. 14.