Another Brick in the Wall builds bridges for opera

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Another Brick In The Wall - Opera (1) ©Yves Renaud

Another Brick in the Wall. Photo by Yves Renaud

I still find it funny every time somebody asks me if I wear a tux to the opera. It’s a stark reminder of just how out of touch we’ve become with one of the most impressive displays of live music, art and theatre. I get it — the opera can seem intimidating, especially if you feel like you don’t understand the music. But opera is alive and well. In fact, it’s pretty kickass!

In recent years, the Opéra de Montréal has taken great strides to bring new audiences back to the opera house and restore what was once a lively public forum for incredible music, controversial topics and epic staging.

Like drinking beer or scotch for the first time, it takes time to discover what you like about it. It took me years to love opera, and my act as a rebellious teenager was listening to Bach, Liszt, and Prokofiev. (By the way, if you knew two thirds of those composers, you’re already ahead of the game.)

I’m sure there are some of you out there who’ve been curious, have wanted to go see an opera, attend a symphony, wanted to understand the music, but just didn’t know where to start.

Perhaps, all you’ve been waiting for is an invitation. Well, month, Montreal is hosting the world premiere of Another Brick in the Wall, an operatic adaptation of Pink Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall by Québécois composer Julien Bilodeau. The show has garnered significant international press and is the most hyped opera in Montreal since…ever.

At last Saturday’s premiere, there was an undeniable air of excitement and anticipation rarely seen in Place des Arts’ Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. Nobody was sure what to expect, seeing as there is very little precedent for this kind of musical fusion, which only heightened the excitement.

After the curtains rose, the hall erupted with a standing ovation for Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. Right off the bat, the most striking thing were two huge walls that shifted and moved with the ebb and flow of the story. The sheer quality of the mise en scène was incredible — I’ve never seen such a creative blend between set design and visual effects in a live show, let alone an opera.

The narrative largely follows that of The Wall, focusing on the demise of the protagonist’s sense of belonging and sanity. As Pink slowly retreats from his life of fame into one of isolation, he builds a metaphorical wall around him, plunging into a delusional state of alienation and rage. From being raised by an overprotective war widow to being mistreated in a tyrannical school, Pink’s rebellious, fascist and self-gratifying lifestyle bears the mark of a childhood filled with anger, loneliness and regret. As he finally reconciles with his past, the wall is destroyed and what remains is what he began with: a vulnerable soul in a world of confusion.

The story’s protagonist, Pink, is played by Étienne Dupuis, whose stage presence is only surpassed by his wonderful voice. But as the opera progressed, an internal struggle was brewing within me: I was not sure how I felt about the music. To be clear, this was not the music of Pink Floyd — save for a few melodies, the majority of the music was original, and at first I wasn’t sure I liked it. I was disappointed that composer Julien Bilodeau chose not to use the main melody of the opera’s namesake at all. It made me question whether or not I would enjoy the rest of the show. The lustre and magic was wearing off.

However, midway through the second act, a poignant and emotional scene marked the turning point of my appreciation for the opera and dramatically changed my perspective: Pink as a child, was lying down amidst small piles of dirt, each marked with a little cross figuratively indicating the final resting places of fallen soldiers who, like his father, fought for his freedom. Singing to him was Pink, now an adult, with the haunting words of that beautiful song:

“The child is grown, the dream is gone, I have become comfortably numb.”

And then it dawned on me: I had come into this opera expecting to hear Pink Floyd’s music, reworked by the composer. I had it all wrong. Bilodeau did not take the music and rewrite the story; he took the story and rewrote the music. From that point onward, my appreciation for the show changed, and by the end I was profoundly moved.

***

Etienne Dupuis (Pink) (2) ©Yves Renaud

Etienne Dupuis in Another Brick in the Wall. Photo by Yves Renaud

I had the chance to speak with Another Brick in the Wall composer Julien Bilodeau:

Stefano Degano: In writing this adaptation, you’re handling a classic rock masterpiece. How do you integrate yourself into the music, both maintaining your voice while highlighting what Roger Waters and Pink Floyd created?

Julien Bilodeau: There are two things that were important to me from the get-go: Firstly, rock music is very interesting in and of itself because of its poignant rhythms and powerful instruments. If you were to just take the structural components of the music — that is the melody, instrumentation, and rhythmic patterns — and transpose them to the symphonic orchestra, it wouldn’t be rich enough. You would lose the effects of the rhythm, the beat and the characteristics ingrained in the style — that is, the sounds of the electric bass, guitar, and drums.

It wouldn’t work if you just stuck to the melodies, which are fine on their own if they’re used in the context of rock, but there’s no way I would have done simply an arrangement, as opposed to an adaptation, of the original. However, because it’s so well known, you can’t stray too far from the music — you can’t only use your own language, you have to balance the two.

As a composer, when we study compositions, we learn to analyze the music and understand how they work, how they’re constructed. So I dove into the original work and I found paths to escape from the harmony, melody, rhythm, and enrich the music in the ways that I know I can with classical music.

Secondly, it’s not a musically abstract project. I put aside the idea of an arrangement as well as writing a piece that might be too avant-gardiste. After Roger Waters heard a sample of what I had done, he confided to me that he was sure it wouldn’t work, that he was expecting either a simple arrangement or something very “out there,” like in the style of Schoenberg — a composer known for an extremely complicated style of writing — and if I was going to go too far for the listener, harmonically speaking, he wouldn’t have agreed.

Naturally, I was in the exact same mindset, and he liked what he heard.

SD: I feel embarrassed to say it, but I only heard The Wall in its entirety for the first time in the last week.

JB: You should not feel ashamed. If you don’t know the album, you don’t need to know it, because you’re going to the opera and we’re telling a story. It’ll be all laid out in front of you.

But, if you really know the album, you’re going to recognize many, many things. However, it’s not purely following the path of the original work. I used it as a baseline, but then the music drifts upwards or downwards towards something that is completely new if you compare it to the album. I couldn’t just take the refrains and repeat them. My craft is to enhance what is in front of me.

SD: People are surely asking, why The Wall, why now?

JB: The original idea came from Pierre Dufour, the former director of Opéra de Montréal, and I was involved in the project right away because of a piece I wrote for the inauguration of the Maison Symphonique with Kent Nagano.

It was not my idea. I know The Wall very well. As a teenager I watched the movie and I knew the album, since it was in my dad’s collection, and in it I saw a story. Furthermore, while opera involves many things, at its core, and most importantly, it’s about telling a story. The Wall is a great story.

SD: It’s incredible, because the timing of this opera is uncanny. And I know that the programming of this opera happened many months before. It’s eerie!

JB: Yes! As I was composing some of the final scenes of the opera this summer, wherein the main character essentially becomes a fascist, the American electoral race was in full swing and with all the media and protests, it was surreal! It couldn’t be more relevant to the present day. We didn’t decide to do it because of the situation in the U.S., it just happened by chance.

But even still, there are walls being built all around the world. You know, Waters did one of the biggest shows of all time with The Wall in 1989 at Potsdamer Platz, in the no man’s land where the Berlin wall was destroyed. At the time, we thought we were good, right? But now it’s almost 30 years later and walls are still being built. We are always at war worldwide and it’s overwhelming how relevant this album is today.

SD: You’ve alluded to your interaction with Waters earlier. What was his reaction when you originally brought up the idea to him?

JB: He was okay with the idea of doing an opera, but on one condition: He said, “If you believe you can do an opera with my words, meaning with the words of the original album — not adding any additional text and not removing text, following the words that I wrote — I’m in.” He was never over my shoulder. I showed him what I did throughout the process, and most of the time he was quite pleased and moved by the music, but the words were untouchable.

This was a big challenge, because I only had 18 pages for a libretto to work with. It was a bit of a constraint.

(Note: Libretto is the term for all the dialogue/lyrics of the opera, and 18 pages is very little considering the length of the opera and the story trying to be conveyed.)

The text is poetic, without dialogue, and sung 80 per cent by the main character, so I needed to try and distribute the text to different characters to make better use of all the singers and still recount a narrative.

This project was a huge challenge for all parties involved. The pacing is very quick, some 28 scenes and set changes in an hour and 50 minutes. A typical opera might have six to ten over the course of 2.5 hours. So you can imagine that it’s moving very quickly. It was a big challenge for Dominique Champagne (the stage director) to make it all come together.

SD: How do you find the balance between who you are as a composer, how you want to communicate, and reaching new audiences?

JB: The context of the creation and whom I’m writing for play a part in what I’m trying to achieve as a composer.

I can’t say this too loudly because, yes, I want to reach people. I put myself behind the audience because it’s not just about showing who I am as a new composer or artist, but filling the spaces with music and making an impact on the audience.

When I am composing, I try to visualize who I’m writing for, and while I know I’m not always right, I still want to affect people emotionally. If I were to stick to one musical language or idea, then I’d have to become a star of that one and only idea, which is neither better nor worse than what I do — it’s just different. My pleasure is to write and create, and the fact that there are so many different forums to do that, it’s a great opportunity for me to expand my musical reach.

No other art form can replicate what opera can communicate. What it can provide emotionally, it’s unique!

Opera used to be a place, long ago, where people gathered together. It was a popular event.

Of course, because it’s Pink Floyd, half of the people coming to the opera have never been to one before. But it will be a cross of musical worlds, old and new. And ultimately, you don’t want to just please people, you want to lift them, to inspire them.

There is still a place for opera in today’s society. And I think we’re going to experience something very special in the opera world for a long time. ■

The Opéra de Montréal production Another Brick in the Wall runs at Place des Arts (175 Ste-Catherine W.) until March 27, $88.25–$155.25

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