In January 2015, Cincinnati Opera’s Director of Production Glenn Plott visited Opera Montreal to check out a potential presentation. He stopped by to see the company’s general director, his friend and colleague Pierre Dufour. What Dufour played wasn’t related to the opera production Plott had come to investigate, but rather from something in the pipeline.
“He closed the door and played me three tracks that were operatic versions of (Pink Floyd’s) The Wall,” Plott says. “I was so excited that when I got back, I played the tracks for staff, but there didn’t seem to be any traction.”
Three years later, one of the year’s most highly anticipated events on the local cultural calendar begins Friday (July 20) as Cincinnati Opera presents the U.S. premiere of Another Brick in the Wall at Music Hall, with an original score adapted from Pink Floyd’s 1979 classic Rock album The Wall. Last year’s world premiere by Opera Montreal sold out 10 performances, garnered international coverage and led to Cincinnati Opera signing on as a co-producer. There will be five 7:30 p.m. performances here through July 31.
“Adapted from” — those are key words. Another Brick in the Wall is not a note-for-note transcription of the music written by Pink Floyd’s bassist/vocalist/songwriter Roger Waters, although the lyrics are all there. The operatic version is by Canadian composer Julien Bilodeau and incorporates themes from the iconic album for a large orchestra, minus electric guitars and percussion.
The burned-out and alienated Rock star named Pink who dominates the album’s narrative now shares the stage with seven other singers portraying the characters in his life. The 51-member chorus has a huge role, and 21 non-speaking, non-singing extras fill the stage; 64 Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra musicians play the score live.
And the staging itself incorporates the high-tech production values of a pricey Rock concert and Cirque du Soleil.
Another Brick in the Wall represents several walls tumbling down on its way to success — it’s a new work that’s immediately accessible, both musically and theatrically, to Pink Floyd fans, opera buffs and everyone in between. It’s a huge step into the future for Cincinnati Opera, a company that has been producing new works for almost a decade but never on this scale. This opera’s genesis and the way that Cincinnati scored the U.S. premiere are also opera-worthy stories, themselves.
It’s appropriate that Another Brick in the Wall’s transformation from Rock opera to full-on operatic adaptation took place in Montreal, which is the city where the seeds for the creation of Pink Floyd’s The Wall were planted.
Montreal’s initially fractious relationship with Pink Floyd and Waters dates back to July 1977, when the band concluded the “In the Flesh” tour at the city’s Olympic Stadium. Disgusted by the crowd’s behavior, Waters spit at an audience member, and later spoke of his increasing feelings of alienation from everything and everyone.
He began composing The Wall almost immediately afterward, structuring it as a concept album about the Rock musician Pink, who isolates himself at the peak of his success with harrowing consequences. Waters drew on his own conflicts with authority, the loss of his father and the erratic behavior of former band member Syd Barrett. The wall Pink builds is a powerful metaphor that became an equally powerful visual in the band’s subsequent tours.
The Wall became one of the highest-selling albums ever, with over 23 million copies sold. It has also been critically well-regarded — ranked by Rolling Stone as 87th on its list of the top 500 rock albums. Alan Parker’s 1982 surrealistic film adaptation also became a cult classic.
Among the millions wearing out their LPs was Opera Montreal’s Dufour, who joined the organization as head of production and took on additional responsibilities as general director in 2006.
“That album changed my life,” he says. “I lost my father in an accident when I was 8. When I first listened as a kid, I understood that there was a missing father in it.”
Dufour also sensed the operatic potential for The Wall, but his first priority for Opera Montreal was rescuing it from financial ruin with innovative programming and technically sophisticated productions.
An operatic version of The Wall remained on a proverbial back burner for Dufour, but he turned up the heat when a city commissioner stopped by in the autumn of 2013.
“He asked me if I had a project that would be relevant for celebrating Montreal’s 375th anniversary during our 2016-17 season,” Dufour says. “I said, ‘Why don’t we do The Wall as an opera?’ He was silent for a few minutes and then he asked, ‘Can you do it?’ I said, ‘Let’s try.’ ”
Dufour and the company’s general artistic director, Michel Beaulac, contacted Waters’ management. Waters had left Pink Floyd in 1985 and started a solo career. But he took ownership of The Wall by staging the huge concert known as The Wall – Live in Berlin in 1990 and by starting his Wall Live tour in 2010.
“They said thank you very much for the offer but the answer is no,” Dufour says, with a wide grin. “But I thought, ‘Why should I take no for an answer?’ ”
Dufour and Beaulac had already recruited Bilodeau to create the musical score. Bilodeau had been commissioned to compose a piece for the dedication of Montreal’s new symphonic hall in 2011, which Beaulac attended. Three years later, he called Bilodeau with his offer. The latter was surprised and pleased.
“They didn’t know that I’ve been a Pink Floyd fan since I was a kid,” Bilodeau says, speaking by phone from Montreal. “I felt comfortable taking on the project.”
Dufour then wrote directly to Waters, who replied with what Waters later told a Rolling Stone reporter was “a pompous letter.” But Dufour remembers it differently — that Waters wrote he was moved by the request to create an opera but was cautious because “I’ve never heard anything from Pop or Rock that was adapted to that stage that wasn’t ridiculous.”
And Waters added what Dufour calls the first hopeful moment. “He said we can’t do a transcription of his work — we have to make it an opera with a score that keeps some of the melodic and rhythmic lines but is mostly original.”
Bilodeau recalls the most hopeful part of the missive: “He said to have the composer write one track, meet him in New York and then we’ll see.”
So Bilodeau composed three tracks to demonstrate the dramatic curve and fluidity he wanted to achieve — the same three tracks that Dufour later played for Cincinnati Opera’s Plott.
The biggest challenge was Waters’ request for a track of probably the best-known piece, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” Just before Christmas in 2014, Dufour, Bilodeau and stage director Dominic Champagne met with Waters in his New York apartment. They played the three MIDI files and collectively held their breath.
“There was no body language and he listened with his eyes closed,” Dufour says.
When the verdict came down 15 minutes later, Bilodeau remembers it as unforgettable. “He looked at me, and he said, ‘OK. It’s good. It’s very good. You got it.’ It was a really, really, really special moment for me, you can imagine. Even though it was a computer file, he listened closely. He was very pleased and moved.”
Six weeks later, Waters called Dufour to give Another Brick in the Wall the official go-ahead. Waters only asked to be kept informed as the project developed. Everyone involved agrees that it’s rare — if not unheard-of — for an artist to cede control to this extent.
“Everything is about trust,” Dufour says. “We met with him four or five times as the opera took shape. Hearing his own story, especially about losing his father, was his biggest contribution.”
Bilodeau adds that he had tremendous freedom in composing the score, which incorporates all of the original lyrics. Waters had only one concern. “He wanted it to be accessible and tonal,” Bilodeau says. He spent all of 2015 composing the first act.
There was another crucial factor. Waters’ successful Rock stagings of The Wall had incorporated previously unavailable theatrical and technical elements that satisfied Waters’ own production goals. So that’s why Champagne — a well-regarded director, playwright and designer — joined the creative team of Another Brick in the Wall as stage director. His extensive productions credits include Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil productions Zumanity and LOVE, the latter a collaboration with the Beatles’ Apple Corps, Ltd and based on the band’s songs. He welcomed the opportunity to work on Another Brick in the Wall, since he ironically had once discussed the production potential of The Wall for Cirque with Waters in 2005. That was the same year Cirque launched LOVE in Las Vegas.
After hearing those early Another Brick in the Wall compositions in 2015, Cincinnati Opera’s Plott never lost his enthusiasm for it as a production here. He continued to receive additional music tracks from Dufour and passed them on to Cincinnati Opera’s artistic director, Evans Mirageas.
“My first response was, ‘Oh, come on. Really?’ ” Mirageas says with a laugh. “But Glenn, who never gets excited about anything, was raving about it.”
When Opera Montreal announced an orchestral read-through with singers and chorus for December 2016, prior to the opera’s premiere in March 2017, Plott urged his boss to go and witness it.
By the end of the first act, Mirageas was ready to bring it to Cincinnati. But he wanted to do more than simply present it. “We were so enthusiastic that we decided to be co-producers,” he says, explaining that means that in return for a major investment, Cincinnati Opera would be entitled to artistic input as the production evolved, a share in future revenues — and the U.S. premiere.
The Montreal premiere and following nine performances in March 2017 were sold out. Waters attended opening night; there were standing ovations. Overall, it was a marketer’s demographic dream: sizable chunks of the audience were first-time operagoers under 40. (By that time, Dufour had resigned from Opera Montreal to start his own company, Productions Opera Concept MP, devoted to contemporary innovative projects in opera.)
Despite Another Brick in the Wall’s success, the creative team — which now included Cincinnati Opera — revised the first act’s score and staging for Cincinnati’s production. So, what will local audiences see and hear? Bilodeau’s score is a fascinating composition. In the excerpts I’ve heard, themes and melodic references flit in and out.
“Each scene refers to the original one in a very different manner,” Bilodeau says. “It’s up to each listener to refer to it or not.”
He also fleshed out characters, giving voice to Pink’s mother, father, wife and other characters referenced in the original album. But outside of Pink, the chorus takes on the biggest role.
“The choir became a character, becoming the voice of the people or a character’s inner voice. It’s a pillar of my work,” Bilodeau says.
Mirageas recalls talking to chorus members after a rehearsal. “They told me there’s so much to learn and it’s hard but, wow, it’s good,” he says.
Bilodeau acknowledges that hardcore Pink Floyd fans may be disappointed that this isn’t a straightforward operatic transcription of a Rock album, but he insists that, as much as he likes Rock, its simplicity and beat just don’t translate well into an operatic orchestral score.
In Cincinnati, baritone Nathan Keoughan debuts as the tragic, self-destructive Pink, a role played in Montreal by Etienne Dupuis. Keoughan had been the “cover” — the operatic term for an understudy — for Dupuis in Montreal and had actually been the first person ever to sing the operatic role of Pink, in that December 2016 read-through that Mirageas attended.
Keoughan says his opera training and his background in musical theater prepared him for Another Brick in the Wall’s unique demands.
“I have to sing incredibly high notes, which I never thought I had,” he says. “I started out as a bass-baritone and now I’m a baritone touching the edges of tenor.”
In addition to the stratospheric high notes, Pink is onstage for virtually the entire opera.
“I have to basically grow into the volume,” Keoughan says. “The show starts very ethereal in a way and gets very dark and intense at the end. In the last 20 minutes, there are a lot of things that are shocking, when the character snaps. You want to snap, but you also want to sing the high C at the end.”
Keoughan cites scenes involving a fascist rally as the most resonant ones for him, as the emotional intensity explodes. He has had monthly coaching sessions in voice and acting leading up to these performances, and he says he relies on conductor Alain Trudel to support him and the other singers.
Trudel, a leading Canadian conductor and recently appointed music director of Ohio’s Toledo Symphony, conducted the world premiere in Montreal. He says the Montreal orchestra loved Bilodeau’s score from the very first note.
“It’s a purely symphonic work — John Adams with Wagnerian breadth and some touches of Puccini at the end of Act I,” he says. “I like conducting ‘Don’t Leave Me Now,’ which ends Act I, as much as anything else.”
Trudel calls himself a drill sergeant for marking, a technique that spares the voice during rehearsal. He has high praise for Keoughan. “He’s been preparing for this for two years and he’s really, really good,” Trudel says.
The Cincinnati production’s director, Suzanne Crocker, worked on the original staging, and most of the original production team or their assistants will oversee the highly complex technical aspects here. Adding coordination of video and sound overlays will be a huge challenge for Plott and his staff. The set is made up of three movable walls, one of which is an LED screen, pushed by stagehands. Video is a major component, handled by four projectors. Keeping the imagery consistent is handled by mapping the wall’s movements and requires split-second timing. Another tricky element is the huge number of costumes for the large cast making frequent changes. Plott added a second technical rehearsal to the Cincinnati schedule to allow for time to coordinate everything.
Hosting Another Brick in the Wall’s U.S. premiere has entailed an outsize marketing effort, encompassing ads in national news media, television spots and even coffee-cup sleeves. Cincinnati Opera wants to achieve a similar demographic shift, like what happened in Montreal.
“Over 25 percent of the total audience (in Montreal) traveled over 100 miles to see it,” Mirageas says. “I found the number of young people in the audience particularly heartening.”
Baby Boomer parents brought their children and grandchildren, according to Dufour.
Cincinnati Opera board member Liz Kathman Grubow attended the Montreal premiere and was overwhelmed. “There was a sense of wow; the buzz at intermission was amazing,” she says. “I was just mesmerized in a way that only opera can do.”
She says Cincinnati’s board fully supports the investment in this co-production. “You have to do this in order to be vibrant and relevant and provide audiences with works they wouldn’t see otherwise,” she says. “That’s the only way we’ll be a thriving organization.”
There’s a lot riding on Another Brick in the Wall, financially and artistically. Officials won’t discuss ticket sales, but the box office was consistently busy while I waited at the Cincinnati Opera’s office for the interviews for this story.
Waters doesn’t plan to be in the audience here, Cincinnati Opera says, but at least 10 representatives from other U.S. opera companies will be checking out Another Brick in the Wall during its run. And Dufour adds that talks are in progress for productions in Buenos Aires, England, France and Toronto.
Mirageas sees Another Brick in the Wall as both a breakthrough and also a continuation of Cincinnati Opera’s mission. “This is the first piece of popular music to be transformed into a genuine work of art, and the way it evolved is a breakthrough,” he says. “It’s also a continuation of our commitment to bring new works with a social message, like Silent Night, Fellow Travelers and As One.”
Press coverage promises to be extensive, too. Rolling Stone and the British publication The Observer lauded the Montreal production, but the Montreal press was mixed. That didn’t matter to Dufour and his crew — they got the master’s approval during the premiere’s intermission. “Powerful shit, man,” Waters told Dufour.
Another Brick in the Wall is presented by Cincinnati Opera for five 7:30 p.m. performances between Friday (July 20) and July 31 at Music Hall (1241 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine). Tickets: cincinnatiopera.org.