Haunting and exquisitely dark, Another Brick in the Wall the opera, which opened last night (March 11th) in Montreal, Canada with Roger Waters in attendance, is not an interpretation or a variation of The Wall, instead, it is an opera *about* The Wall. Our report, with red carpet pictures by Marie Lopez, and performance pictures by Yves Renaud, does include some spoilers, particularly visual ones...
A lot of enigma still surrounds the infamous incident that inspired The Wall 40 years ago in Montreal, Canada. It seems universally accepted that the audience member Roger Waters spat at during the Montreal stop of the In the Flesh tour will be impossible to find (presumably, this person has had no interest in coming forward… book deal, anyone?). In fact, a cursory glance at online resources reveals a variety of guesses as to when exactly the spitting incident occurred that evening (though there are some very well-informed guesses, based on the audio recordings of that show that exist). Yet, despite all this hazy minutiae, there was enough there to motivate the forces that created The Wall – and principally Roger Waters, whose own life experiences provided the foundation for this work that has generated so much interest, revenue, and critical acclaim over so many years.
Despite the ambiguities mentioned above, The Wall became an epic, classic, musical effort and flourished in ways that have transcended the events of that 1977 evening at Stade Du Parc Olympique. Waters has managed to grow The Wall from a profoundly introspective piece to one that has, over the years, provided an increasingly amplified vessel for frustrations: old and new, both internal to and external to its creator, and reflective of larger socioeconomic and political issues. Another Brick in the Wall, the opera, is not a part of that thread in one crucial respect (or two): it deliberately takes the risk of betraying what we are most familiar with in The Wall in order to draw our attention to the personal narrative and the characters that help construct that narrative. The risk pays off: The Wall, in this opera format, boasts an essence that is clearly its own and underscores the basic ideas that made the story so powerful to begin with. Most noticeably, it does so while resisting the temptation to succumb to a political discourse and atmosphere that is taunting it and teasing it into a path of storyline reinvention: the fact that this production manages to give the story a unique hue but remains loyal to the central idea of Waters’ original plot is a testament to the talent and discipline of those involved in this work.
In Another Brick in the Wall, the musical, rhythmic, and theatrical qualities we associate most with The Wall take a back seat to other elements that make for a truly robust opera. Fundamentally, Bilodeau has made this a work of his own. Ironically, he does so by re-anchoring in the original ideas that weaved The Wall together but by also taking it a step further and exploring it from a much darker space. Rather than taking a chronological sampling of Waters’ original ideas and repeating them, it feels as though Another Brick in the Wall deploys deep into the emotional and even spiritual state that this chronology unfolded in. Whereas The Wall has become increasingly outward-looking with each modern re-interpretation, Another Brick in the Wall takes the very basic and fundamental narrative, strips it of the elements that symbolize it in popular culture, and uses the narrative to explore more inwardly into the state of mind and heart that facilitated that work to begin with. This may be, ironically, as close as anything can come to the sense anyone felt on that stage that night in 1977 and the baggage that led to that.
Perspective is an important instrument in Julien Bilodeau's composition of The Wall. Not only are the peaks and valleys of the opera significantly different from those in The Wall Live or in any other version of The Wall, but the perspective of the audience is inverted during a good amount of the opera. Another Brick in the Wall begins by giving the audience the sense they are somewhere behind Pink’s band as they play live, full stadium audience in front of them: this is significantly different from the way many of us have experienced The Wall’s live performances and the general perspective of the show that has cemented in our minds. In fact, it is truly an unpredictable way to be reintroduced to this work and one that reminds us of what we were supposed to find more visceral: not so much the hysteria of the latest thing to object to but of the torment one can experience within, to the point that those other things seem so peripheral.
Instead of experiencing the narrative from Pink’s point of view, the audience is immediately placed in a third-party observer context and somehow this intensifies a sense of isolation. Interestingly, as everything unfolds, you get the sense Pink joins you: through a good amount of the production Pink is only quietly witnessing the story we have all come to know in The Wall – the biggest difference is that the characters that weave that story together have their own voice and project their own experiences throughout in greater force than usual. In fact, in a strange and dark way, it makes this manifestation of The Wall feel like a dream (or nightmare), or even something a character like Pink would experience after death. Maybe that latter possibility is a stretch – but the general mood the story imparts is definitely dark enough.
Among the opera’s most palpable shifts is the strong(er) presence of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” the absence of recognizable melodies (funneling the audience’s attention to other details), and the meatier weight of characters such as Pink’s parents. Interestingly – and quite possibly deliberately – some key parts of The Wall, such as Comfortably Numb, are far more subtle, while others we may not normally pay as much attention to are delivered with such powerful punch it pulls you right in. An example of the latter: Outside the Wall. In Another Brick in the Wall it truly takes on a whole new life and leaves such a strong footprint it may be the most important part of the performance.
Etienne Dupuis does a great job as Pink, though it is in the second set of the show that his confidence in that role shines most. But the forces that really pull this effort together are the combined effort of Dupuis, France Bellemare (the Mother), Caroline Bleau (the Woman), and Stephanie Pothier (Vera Lynn). The entire cast is superb, but it is these four that hold the effort together and who help this effort stand apart from all formats The Wall has existed in. The entire production team has demonstrated how Pink Floyd’s music will endure far beyond its own time.
Another Brick in the Wall plays from March 11th through March 27th at Opera de Montreal. You can find more information at operademontreal.com. Our thanks to the organisers for their assistance. Thanks also go to Bill White and Bernard for letting us know there's a five minute video interview with Waters and preview of the show at Radio Canada's website. The video is at the foot of the page; questions are in French and Waters' replies are in English with French sub-titles. There's also an article at the Montreal Gazette regarding the series of shows.