Roger Waters walks the red carpet ahead of the "Roger Waters Us + Them" screening during the 76th Venice Film Festival at Sala Grande on September 06, 2019 in Venice, Italy.
As operatic adaptation of Pink Floyd album hits Toronto, band’s ex-frontman tells the Star why ‘Comfortably Numb’ has a different power in concert than it once did.
By Ben RaynerPop Music Critic
Fri., Nov. 8, 2019timer8 min. read
updateArticle was updated Nov. 09, 2019
Pink Floyd’s epochal 1979 double-album opus “The Wall” is often referred to as a “rock opera,” but that still doesn’t mean Roger Waters was entirely sold on turning it into an actual opera when approached with the idea by the folks at Opéra de Montréal a few years ago.
Not at first, anyway. The former Floyd frontman — who wrote a bona fide opera of his own about the French Revolution called “Ça Ira” in 2005 — eventually caved when he realized that composer Julien Bilodeau and stage director Dominic Champagne were hell-bent on doing something rather more bold and original with his songs than a cheesy pop-classical revue. And thus “Another Brick in the Wall: The Opera” was born, debuting in Montreal in March of 2017 with Waters himself tucked into the cast as a librettist.
The ambitious production, a thoroughly modern and challenging production that by all reports is about as far from the standard “jukebox musical” as you can get, was remounted by the Cincinnati Opera in July of last year and now arrives in Toronto for a five-night run at Meridian Hall from Nov. 13 to 17 and 23. That’s just a few days shy of the 40th anniversary of the original release of “The Wall” on Nov. 29, 1979.
There couldn’t be a better excuse to get Roger Waters on the phone, really. And luckily for us, he agreed to grant the Star an exclusive interview to herald the arrival of “Another Brick in the Wall: The Opera” in Toronto. What follows is a condensed version of a lengthy, highly entertaining interview that, at points, featured Waters reading an unpublished poem he wrote for author Cormac McCarthy and wishing grave ill upon the billionaires who plan to wait out the coming apocalypse in heavily armed bunkers. For the purposes of brevity, we’ll keep it focused on “The Wall” and its legacy here.
It must be rather cool to see this ambitious little project coming back around again, no?
Yeah, I’m always pleased to see legs on something I’ve been involved with. It would be great to go to Toronto — I can’t, sadly, I’ve got too much work to do — to see what they’ve done since Montreal. I know that Julien and Dominic and the rest of the team have been working on it, so hopefully somebody will make a recording of it, just a simple recording with a fixed camera, so that I can have a look at it and see how it’s developed.
Well, if you wanna talk about legs, “The Wall” itself is just a beast. It’s kind of its own thing now. It exists apart from you. Did you have the sense that you had an achievement on your hands when you guys made the record all those years ago?
Listen, I had a sense that I had a monster on my hands when I did a little sketch on the back of an envelope of the basic theatrical idea of building a wall across a rock ’n’ roll arena to separate the band from the audience as an expression of alienation. I thought “F--- me, what a brilliant idea.” I confess that to you now. Don’t tell anyone.
You were initially suspicious of this whole opera thing, though, right?
Yeah, I’m always suspicious, or I can be suspicious, of adaptations of popular music into a classical mode, or a mode with classical traditions (inserted) into it. And certainly most modern opera has that abiding to it. So when somebody suggests that I get involved in a new orchestral arrangement of songs that I wrote when I was with Pink Floyd, I normally go ‘Aaaaah, no.’ So I do have and I did have misgivings.
However, back in the day, they came to see me in New York — Julien and Dominic and Pierre (Dufour, former creative director of Opéra de Montréal) — and they played me a demo of a couple of bits, but mainly they seduced me with their clear attachment to the original work and their understanding of what it’s about and so on and so forth. And so I was flattered, but also I was fairly sure that they would do something that had value. And they have. So they were right and they persuaded me and, as it turns out, I was right, too, to acquiesce and to even stick my oar in very occasionally.
I know you’ve written an actual opera since, but did you conceive of “The Wall” as a “rock opera” in the first place or did it just get tagged with that term?
That’s something that journalists make up. Unless Pete Townsend made it up for “Tommy.” But I doubt it. It sounds more like critic terminology to me than writer terminology.
“Another Brick in the Wall” is a legit opera, too, right? People who come thinking it’s, like, a Pink Floyd version of ‘Mamma Mia!’ or something are not going to get what they’re expecting.
No, they’re not. I have attempted, I confess — particularly after the first performances in Montreal — to steer Julien Bilodeau towards nodding more closely at some of the original melodies. My position was saying to him with “In the Flesh,” for instance, it’s a strong melody so why do you have to invent a different melody or even dispense with melody at that point? But that’s a conversation I can have with him because he’s obviously a serious musician and extremely good at his job so I’m really looking forward to seeing whether they’ve made any changes and, if they have, what they are.
What do you think has allowed this piece of art that you created years ago to resonate with so many people and to have these kinda legs? Like I said, it’s got a life of its own. Why do you think this one connected with so many people?
I think people recognize that it’s not acting. It’s true, y’know? A lot of pop music is people sort of acting. Songwriters write songs that are crafted and very often put together for the purpose of being popular. That’s why it’s called ‘pop music.’ But I think people recognize that “The Wall,” among many of my other works — it’s true of “Dark Side of the Moon,” as well, and of “Wish You Were Here” and of “Animals” and of “Amused to Death” and “Is This the Life We Really Want” — people recognize that this is an expression of my take on what it is to be human. And it’s very, very direct.
And I think people understand that none of this is a construct. It may be that I’ve used my craft as a musician or even as a writer to form it, but it’s direct. And dare I say it, all great literature or all literature, certainly, that survives is always semi-autobiographical. You can’t write anything that communicates to other people through music or word or language that will last unless the connections you’re making with humankind are real and unless you really care about them. You need to be a slave to your emotions in order to be a decent writer, in my view. And I think people recognize that.
Do you have anything new on the go these days? Any irons in the fire?
I have irons in the fire. I’ve recently finished work on a studio in a new house that I’ve just moved into so I’ve started to write in there. I’ve finished one song that I think is extremely important. I’m very, very pleased with it and proud of it, so that’s new stuff. But also I’m right on the cusp now of making the final decision of whether I will go on the road next summer in the United States and Canada and Mexico City, just because I love it there so much. So I may go on the road and do 40 gigs next summer, which will mean if I do that I’ll be working 24 hours a day from now until the first gig just to try and get it together.
Can you still relate to the young Roger you hear on “The Wall”?
Yeah. Not that I sit down every Saturday night and listen to “The Wall.” I don’t. But listen, at the moment, if you really wanna know, I’ll tell you what I’m doing today: I’ve figured out that if I do go on the road next year it’ll probably be the last time I do arenas because I’m 76 years old now and it’s not easy doing it — though I am fit, thank goodness and whatever — and I feel an obligation to do some of my best-known songs from the past. And one of those songs, I suspect, will be “Comfortably Numb.” “Comfortably Numb” we did on the “Us and Them” tour at the end of every show … because it’s sort of anthemic and people love it so much and it’s a sort of a “letting off fireworks and dropping confetti and isn’t everything wonderful and what a great night we’ve had” moment. Well, that’s not what “Comfortably Numb” is about. So I’m putting it at the beginning. If I do it, I’m putting it at the very beginning of my show and it will be a soundtrack for the dystopian nightmare that I call the netherworld, where the walking dead are wandering around with earbuds in knowing that there’s something deeply and desperately wrong but not being able to do anything about it or quite figure out what it is because they’re worried about terrorists and immigrants and because they’re buying all this neo-fascist bullsh--.
Certainly in New York where I live, when you’re wandering about the streets it’s like the walking dead. So they have become “comfortably numb” and being “comfortably numb” — or uncomfortably numb — is the situation that most of us find ourselves in. So I like the idea of “Comfortably Numb” to be finally set in a context where it belongs.
CORRECTION — NOV. 8, 2019: This story has been edited from an earlier version that misspelled the given name of stage director Dominic Champagne and misstated the length of the run of “Another Brick in the Wall: The Opera” in Toronto.
Ben Rayner is the Star's music critic and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @ihateBenRayner
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