Q & A: Julien Bilodeau On ‘Another Brick In The The Wall’ & Roger Water’s Influence On The OperaBy Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Philippe Stirnweiss)
Since its world premiere in 2017, “Another Brick in the Wall” has garnered popularity throughout North America. The opera, based on the era defining album “The Wall” by Julien Bilodeau and first performed in Montreal before heading to the United Stated.
The work, which set out to “give the audience an opportunity to discover a new dimension of this legendary work,” is now heading to Toronto and Vancouver this season in a production that has been hailed a visual spectacle.
OperaWire spoke with Bilodeau about the creative process and working alongside Roger Waters to create the work.
OperaWire: Tell me about the inspiration for the opera and the first time you heard The Wall?
Julien Bilodeau: The original idea for that project came from Opéra de Montréal in 2014 when the city of Montreal was preparing all sorts of celebrations for the 375th anniversary of its foundation in 2017. I drew the attention of Michel Beaulac, the artistic director of Opéra de Montréal, when I premiered Ouverture with Maestro Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for the inauguration of a new hall in 2011.
The relationship between The Wall and Montreal is an infamous but a fascinating one. At the end of their 1977 tour (two years prior to The Wall), Pink Floyd performed in Montreal. The show was a disaster. The band was tired and Roger Waters became frustrated by the little attention their compositions were getting from the public. Pink Floyd was touring in stadium for the first time and their music could not be appreciated as well as in arenas or theaters. At some point during the Montreal performance, Waters lost it. He shouted at the public, asking for their silence and attention but without success. Finally, he invited someone on the stage and then spat in his face.
This has since been called the infamous “spitting event.”
From that moment, Waters felt a sense of complete alienation and dreamed about a show where there could be a wall between the band and the public. That was the starting point for Waters in the long and very creative process that culminated in the next Pink Floyd album, The Wall.
I have known that story since I was a teenager. The Wall was in my father’s vinyl record collection and it seems it has always been around.
OW: Did you immediately believe that “The Wall” had the potential for an opera when you first heard it?
JB: When I was asked by Opéra de Montréal to compose this opera, the first thing that came to my mind was not the music but the Alan Parker movie that I also knew very well. I knew that the story was compelling, modern, and with a great dramatic arc for opera. For that story to be well transposed onto the opera stage, the music would need to be new, far away from the “pop-symphonic arrangements” that, usually, in my opinion, loses too much by imitating different mediums. Opéra de Montréal agreed to these terms and I found out later that Waters had the same opinion.
OW: What was your relationship with Pink Floyd? Were you a fan and what made their music special to you?
JB: Most of Pink Floyd’s albums were played in my house when I was a child. I have a vivid memory of Atom Heart Mother. I must have been 5 or 6 years old when I heard it for the first time, and I remember that moment very well as both strange and magical. In Montreal, and in the province of Quebec as a matter of a fact, progressive bands were hugely popular in the 70’s. So it was not unusual for me to encounter that genre of music at an early age. And it surely shaped me as a musician and a composer. (I was in a progressive band myself in my teen years). But Opéra de Montréal did not reach out to me because of that historical background. They were looking for a modern composer of classical music, which has been my main occupation since 2003.
OW: When writing the opera, did you get a chance to speak with Roger Waters? What was your process and how did you come up with the music for the work?
JB: Yes, I did. This project would not have started without his approval. After Opéra de Montréal approached me, I composed three scenes in order to present my musical vision of the opera to Waters who was, at first, very dubious about the idea of turning The Wall into a “real” opera. He was kind enough to invite us to New York, where I played for him the scenes I had composed. That moment was a turning point. After a careful listening of the music, he turned to me and simply said: “Okay Julien, you’ve got it.” We did agree on two things at that meeting: first, avoid “pop symphonic arrangements” while staying in the realm of a musical language that is “neo-tonal” and, second, evoke the original music.
These two points were exactly in line with my vision and I believe Waters felt it when he listened to my work. Regarding the second point, which was to evoke the original music, my model was something like the 3rd movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which was based on the well-known “Bruder Jakob.” In my work, Waters’ music became a musical object where the melodies, the rhythms and/or the harmonies became the starting point of a composition process that created an independent result from the original, but still, remains strongly linked to it.
After that meeting in New York, I had “carte blanche.” Waters and I met twice so I could show him the two acts of the opera once they were composed, prior to the Montreal world premiere in March 2017.
OW: Tell me about the musical style of the opera. What were some of your musical inspirations outside of The Wall?
OW: The biggest challenge — and the one real condition from Waters — was to work with, and only with, the original text of The Wall. Normally, an opera libretto is about, more or less, 100 pages. The lyrics for The Wall are about 14 pages! There is no dialogue, no recitative, it is a suite of poems that reflect the state of a mind of the main character “Pink,” who is in a free-fall in his life but does find redemption. It soon became apparent to me that I would need to explore how Waters’ words express the feelings and thoughts of different characters.
Even if Pink is the one expressing his true self throughout the entire album, what he says often reflects the feelings of others in society (concert crowds, war heroes, widows, schoolchildren, groupies, political prisoners, refugees, socialists, fascists, and so on). It naturally led me to consider the chorus as a central character who can embody these different groups. I was also able to create some characters around Pink, namely, the Father, the Mother and the Wife. For all these reasons, the opera is like a close cousin of the oratorio.
OW: What excites you about showcasing the work in Toronto and Vancouver?
JB: I love opera. As a composer, it is probably the most challenging, exciting form to approach. I am committed to that art form and I wish it could reach more people, more souls. I believe that no other art form can bring the power and the emotion opera provides. Not that it is better than other art forms, but it is unique and it triggers authentic sensations. One of the great successes of this project is being able to attract the attention of a neophyte audience to this art form. In Montreal, 30,000 people attended the opera and about half of them were coming to the opera for the first time. We saw nearly the same ratio in 2018 with our US premiere in Cincinnati. Thus, whenever this opera is presented, an encounter occurs between a virgin audience and operagoers — which makes opera, as an art form, the place for a singular sharing inscribed in the present moment.
OW: What will the production look like and how will it differ from other recent productions?
JB: The production will be similar to the premiere in Montreal in 2017. The orchestra and the chorus have been tightened (from 69 to 54 in the pit and from 48 to 36 for the chorus). Led by stage director Dominic Champagne, the production offers a visual bouquet made of spectacular projections and more than 20 actors and/or dancers who embody the world portrayed by Pink.
OW: For those who have never heard the opera, what do you hope they get from it?
JB: The Wall deals with matters that are more relevant today than ever before, if possible! It tells the story of a man who loses his father at an early age, taken away by war. From that tragic starting point, we witness his attempts to connect with the world, with the “others,” and to make a lasting relationship out of it. The great paradox of his condition is that his popular success goes along with a series of personal failures where he finds himself incapable of communicating basic feelings to the loved ones surrounding him. He finds an artificial comfort by isolating himself from others, but this isolation turns his dreams and hopes into alienation and deprivation until he sees a point of no return.
This dramatic arc serves well as a metaphor of our society.
We live in a time where walls are being built every day between people. We live in a time where accepting the other and understanding the differences between people are overshadowed by lies and biases. We live in a time where the individual cult is a symbol of success and where social movements such as those for equal rights and environmentalism are portrayed as threats. We live in a time where the other is a threat because of gender, culture, language, religion. We fail to talk to each other and really understand. Waters’ The Wall is there to remind us that “the ones who really love you/walk up and down outside the wall.”