Not your father’s rock opera
By David Lyman
Cincinnati Opera and Pink Floyd as artistic collaborators? “Strange bedfellows” hardly begins to describe it. Perhaps “preposterous” is a better word.
But this July, Cincinnati Opera will present “Another Brick in the Wall,” based on Pink Floyd’s iconic 1979 “The Wall.” The album, which sold 23 million RIAA-certified units, became one of the most influential rock albums of all time.
According to Observer music writer Jim Farber, composer Julien Bilodeau’s opera draws on an abundance of influences, everything from Philip Glass and Brahms to Keith Jarrett and the late Pink Floyd pianist Rick Wright.
But what it’s not is what is most surprising. It’s not rock ’n’ roll.
“Another Brick in the Wall” is not a ‘rock opera,’ ” Cincinnati Opera artistic director Evans Mirageas said last year when the production was announced. “There’s nary a drum set or electric guitar to be heard.”
Being a rock opera was never the point of this production, which is the dream child of Pierre Dufour, CEO and founder of the Montreal-based Productions Opéra Concept MP. The opera premiered at the Opéra de Montréal in March 2017, where Dufour had been general director until 2016. Along the way, Cincinnati Opera became “Another Brick’s” co-producer and will bring it to Music Hall for five performances, July 20-31.
“I’ve been listening to that piece – ‘The Wall’ – for the last 39 years,” said Dufour, speaking by phone from Montreal. “When I first heard it, I was a young man. I didn’t know anything about opera. But for me, it was an opera.”
The music was impassioned and wildly rhythmic, but so was a lot of music in the late 1970s. For Dufour, though, the piece held something intensely personal. Like Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who wrote most of “The Wall’s” lyrics, and Pink, the album’s leading character, Dufour had lost his father at a young age. The tale’s themes of abandonment and isolation were more than intellectual theories to him. They were something he lived with every day.
“I was 8 years old when I lost my father,” said Dufour. “My English wasn’t so great, but I understood what Waters was saying. He lost his own father fighting in Italy during World War II. You learn to live with something like that. But you never forget.”
Dufour listened to the album over and over and over. It was never far from his mind as he progressed through his career, eventually becoming director of productions in Montreal, then stepping into the position of general director when the company seemed to be stumbling toward extinction.
After quickly returning the company to economic health and experiencing great success with works outside the standard operatic repertoire, Dufour wondered if it might be the right moment to turn that long-ago rock album into an opera.
“People have the right to dream,” said Dufour. Though he’s quoting someone and can’t remember who it was, it doesn’t make any difference. Dufour’s point is that “Another Brick in the Wall” was – and is – his dream.
Following that dream
Dufour reached out to Roger Waters for permission to proceed with the project.
In a March 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, Waters recalled his response to Dufour.
“I wrote him a rather pompous letter, saying, ‘In my experience, attempts to transmogrify rock and roll material into anything symphonic or operatic are an unmitigated disaster, always,’” he told reporter Kory Grow. “I think it’s a terrible idea.”
“I wrote him a rather pompous letter, saying, ‘In my experience, attempts to transmogrify rock and roll material into anything symphonic or operatic are an unmitigated disaster, always,’” he told reporter Kory Grow. “I think it’s a terrible idea.” – Roger Waters
Dufour wasn’t deterred. If anything, his spirits were buoyed because he felt Waters’ comments had been helpful.
“That was key information for us,” said Dufour. “We knew that a literal translation would not work. It was great guidance.”
Even so, Dufour and his collaborators were wandering into tricky territory. Though opera companies had dabbled with rock before, they inevitably were regarded more as pop events than as opera. Dufour wasn’t just looking to sell tickets. He wanted to broaden the opera repertoire in a meaningful way.
His timing couldn’t have been better. During the past 20 years or so, a generation of post-World War II musical artists and administrators has come of age. They were raised on a rich palette of musical styles. They felt no need to be ruled by the musical restrictions that had guided the opera world for so many years.
Opera gets adventurous
Opera companies, not long ago regarded as the most stodgy of arts organizations, often dabble now in decidedly contemporary fare.
Consider these examples:
In 2015, the Seattle Opera premiered “An American Dream” by Jack Perla and Jessica Murphy Moo. Set in World War II, it parallels the stories of two young women, one a Japanese-American forced into an internment camp, the other a German-Jewish immigrant distraught about the fate of the family she left behind.
Last summer, Santa Fe Opera premiered “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” by Mason Bates and Mark Campbell.
In mid-May, Michigan Opera Theatre performed Daniel Sonenberg’s “The Summer King,” the tragic story of the Negro leagues’ superstar Josh Gibson.
The same weekend, Houston Grand Opera premiered what it described as the world’s first mariachi opera, “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” (To Cross the Face of the Moon) by José “Pepe” Martínez and Leonard Foglia.
“I truthfully believe that rock and opera are not that far apart from each other,” said Dufour. “If bass guitar and bass drums had existed more than 400 years ago, I think those instruments would have been in the orchestra pit.”
The Cincinnati connection
But how did Cincinnati come into this? Long before this was a done deal – before Waters agreed to the production, in fact – Dufour approached his longtime friend Glenn Plott about the work. Plott is Cincinnati Opera’s director of production. He and Dufour regularly wheeled and dealed over all aspects of opera production, trading and bartering costumes, set pieces and sometimes even entire productions with one another.
The more they worked together, the more Plott became an unabashed fan of Dufour.
“What I like about him is that he has a true affection for opera,” Plott said. “We have a similar belief that you don’t do operas for yourself. You do them for the audience.”
Late in 2014, Plott traveled to Montreal. Dufour was staging a new production of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Samson and Delilah” and hoped Cincinnati Opera might become the co-producer. That didn’t pan out, but it proved to be the beginning of the companies’ Pink Floyd-based relationship.
“He pulled me into his office and said, ‘I want you to listen to this’,” recalls Plott. He played two sections of music that composer Bilodeau had written. Plott loved what he heard. “We’re about the same age. And like him, I grew up listening to Pink Floyd.”
Plott returned to Cincinnati and immediately started lobbying the Opera’s upper management to consider the production.
“Frankly, in the beginning, nobody seemed interested,” Plott said. “I think it was sort of an alien concept to most of them. They wanted to know if it was going to be like ‘Tommy’ or ‘Quadrophenia.’ You know – a rock opera. But this isn’t a rock opera. It’s an opera. A real opera, which is the great part about it.”
“I think it was sort of an alien concept to most of them. They wanted to know if it was going to be like ‘Tommy’ or ‘Quadrophenia.’ You know – a rock opera. But this isn’t a rock opera. It’s an opera. A real opera, which is the great part about it.” – Glenn Plott, director of production, Cincinnati Opera
As more sound files were created, Dufour sent them to Plott, who continued championing the project.
In 2015, the score was complete. Dufour engaged some singers and an orchestra and presented a non-staged “reading” of the work for an invited audience. One of the attendees was Evans Mirageas.
“When he came back, he was enthusiastic about it,” Plott said. Before long, Cincinnati Opera became the work’s co-producer. One of the perks was being able to stage the U.S. premiere.
Find out more about the full 2018 Cincinnati Opera season here.
Dufour left Opéra de Montréal in 2016 to create a production company to stage and, with some luck, arrange future productions of “Another Brick in the Wall.”
He felt his work in Montreal was done. By the time he left, 30 percent of the people attending performances there were under 30, unusual in the opera world.
And what about the Pink Floyd opera? Will it have the same impact in Cincinnati it did in Montreal? The Canadian company sold an estimated 30,000 tickets, far more than its standard productions. According to Dufour, more than 56 percent of those in the audience were not previously in the company’s database. And 9 percent were from outside Canada.
“Did I do the right thing when I left the opera?” asked Dufour. “I think so. I couldn’t get ‘The Wall’ out of my mind. It is such an important story. And such a human story. I knew I wanted to do it. And the one way to make sure it happened was to leave. I don’t ever want to live with regrets. So I said, ‘Let’s jump.’ And here I am.”