Stage Door Review

Another Brick in the Wall: The Opera

Sunday, November 24, 2019

✭✭

music by Julien Bilodeau, libretto by Roger Waters, directed by Dominic Champagne

Productions Opéra Concept MP, Meridian Hall, Toronto

November 13, 14, 16, 17 & 23, 2019;

Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver, BC

April 23, 25, 26, 29 & 30, 2020

"So ya

Thought ya

Might like to go to the show.

To feel the warm thrill of confusion

That space cadet glow”

Another Brick in the Wall: The Opera had its triumphant world premiere in Montreal in March 2017 and an acclaimed US premiere in Cincinnati in 2018. It has now finished its Toronto debut run and leaves a number of questions in its wake.

The idea behind the opera’s creation, conceived by Pierre Dufour of Opéra de Montréal, is that Québécois composer Julien Bilodeau would write completely new music to Rogers Waters’s lyrics for the Pink Floyd concept album The Wall (1979). Given that The Wall is considered one of the greatest rock albums ever written, it would seem incredibly hubristic even to consider composing new music to Waters’s lyrics. Yet, Waters, on hearing excerpts of Bilodeau’s opera, gave his approval and agreed to be listed at the opera’s librettist.

While the opera’s plot generally follows that of Alan Parker’s film Pink Floyd – The Wall (1982), it begins with the recreation of an incident not included in the film. In 1977 Pink Floyd played a concert at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. After admonishing the crowd about making too much noice, Waters spat on a fan who was trying to climb on stage. The incident unsettled Waters, who muses about building a wall between him and his fans. As Waters told The National Post in 2016, “Very soon after whatever happened that day, I realized I was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing, and I needed to express the fact that I didn’t feel human, and I wanted to feel human.” This led to The Wall, “a show that involved building a huge wall between me and the people that I was trying to communicate with”.

In Another Brick, Waters has his alter ego Pink actually invite a fan on stage only then to spit on him. Immediately, thereafter Pink collapses on stage and is admitted to a clinic. The opera then follows Pink’s reliving of key moments in his life in an attempt to understand how his life has gone off course. All the wounds he suffers losing his father in World War II to being mistreated at school become bricks in a wall that he is building around himself to isolate himself from humanity.

One thing that Another Brick does prove is that Pierre Dufour and Julien Bilodeau were right – Waters’s lyrics do make a fine opera libretto, in fact, a better opera libretto than many contemporary purpose-written ones. While the notion of replacing already classic rock music with new music in an operatic style does seem bizarre, there was a time when librettos were not thought of a belonging to a single composer. Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782) became so famous for his libretti that numerous composers set them. Adriano in Siria, for example, was set by more than 60 composers in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Il re pastore (1751) was set by several others composers before Mozart set it in 1775, making his the best known version.

The main question, then, is whether Bilodeau’s music is a fine alternative setting of Waters’s lyrics. Listening to Another Brick it would seem that Bilodeau has not yet found his own operatic voice. His most impressive writing is for the chorus who appear in the majority of scenes. Here he veers between Carl Orff for the more violent passages and Ralph Vaughan Williams for the more reflective passages, such as the beautiful final chorus “Outside the Wall".

For most of the orchestral music Bilodeau turns to American Minimalist composers like Philip Glass and John Adams though the vocal lines are more typical of conventional opera. In orchestral interludes Bilodeau cleverly works in some of Pink Floyd’s original music so that his own does not seem totally divorced from the album. One of the best examples of Bilodeau’s versatility is when he morphs the minimalism of his orchestral writing into a big band style to accompany Vera Lynn (Stéphanie Pothier) as she sings “We’ll Meet Again” and then neatly segues back again to minimalism. The main flaw of Bilodeau’s score, especially in Act 1, is in setting so many of Waters’s songs as grandiose choral climaxes. A series of all fortissimo passages of any kind soon becomes bombast and we long for quieter, more intimate passages to help break up this sequence of all-stops-out sound. Act 2 shows more variety, but the tendency is always there to go too big too soon for too long.

While the choral work is consistently impressive, the burden of the show rests on the back of Nathan Keoughan as Pink. Despite the fact that the vocalists and orchestra are miked, the expressivity of Keoughan’s powerful baritone still shone through and he is an excellent actor with a strong physical presence. He pops into falsetto with ease and can bend notes when required to give them a rock-like feel.

Keoughan is on stage nearly all the time, so that none of the other roles come close in length. Among the all-Canadian cast France Bellemare wields a rich soprano as Pink’s domineering mother. Soprano Caroline Bleau uses a covered tone in the role of The Woman from which occasional flashes of brightness appear. Jean-Michel Richer creates a strong impression in his brief singing but longer acting role as Pink’s Father and Stéphanie Pothier gives an excellent account of the whole of Vera Lynn’s signature song. Eleven-year-old Eliott Plamondon proves a sensitive actor in the silent role of Young Pink.

Director Dominique Champagne has directed three Cirque du Soleil shows and he demonstrates a great flair for spectacle. He has a facility for managing huge numbers of people on stage and for allowing one grand set piece to metamorphose quickly into another. In this he is aided by Stéphane Roy’s simple set consisting of three tall, thick moveable walls (appropriately enough) that can be combined in various ways.

Almost constantly, no matter how they are positioned, the surfaces of the walls become screens for Johnny Ranger’s extensive still and animated projections. As is usually the case with projections, abstract or still projections do not distract as much as animation, but Champagne frequently allows Ranger’s animated projections to overwhelm the stage picture so that we find we are watching the projections and not the singers.

It must be mentioned what an inhospitable venue Meridian Hall (formerly the Sony Centre, formerly the Hummingbird Centre, formerly the O’Keefe Centre) is for opera. To think that the Canadian Opera Company presented opera there from 1961 to 2006 in a space that is so acoustically dead is almost unbelievable. Even though the orchestra and singers in Another Brick are amplified, the results are depressing. The singers’ voices come through but despite the 51 members of the orchestra trying to lend shape and nuance to Brulotte’s score under Alain Trudel’s baton, their sound is muddy at best with no sense of detail in the strings.

To judge Another Brick properly I would have to hear it in a more sympathetic venue and without Champagne’s extravagant staging. As it is, Another Brick will never displace The Wall as the ideal setting of Roger Waters’s words. I sorely missed the children’s chorus on the album singing in a lower-class accent “We don’t need no education”.

While around half the audience in both Montreal and Cincinnati were newcomers to opera, whether Another Brick will lead them to explore opera further remains to be seen. If The Wall were to become a stage show, I think that going the route of The Who’s Tommy (1992) would be best. As with the stage version of The Who’s rock opera of 1969, keep the original music, adapt the text for several characters, direct the result to bring out the drama inherent in each scene. For The Wall this straightforward approach would guarantee the most success and the surest means of longevity in the theatre.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Scenes from Another Brick in the Wall: The Opera. © 2017 Yves Renaud.

For tickets, visit anotherbrickopera.com.