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Home arrow Interviews arrow Roger Waters interviews arrow November 21st 2005 - NY Times/IHT, USA
November 21st 2005 - NY Times/IHT, USA Print E-mail

Interviewed by Alan Riding for the NY Times and International Herald Tribune.

ROME, Nov. 18 - Aging rockers don't fade away; nor, apparently, do their followers. So two decades after Roger Waters broke with Pink Floyd, as bassist, lead singer and composer, fans flew here from across Europe to hear his latest creation. And it seemed to matter little that he had written a 19th-century-style opera called "Ça Ira," or "There Is Hope."

Before the semistaged concert premiere began on Thursday in Renzo Piano's new Auditorium Parco Della Musica, Mr. Waters was received with whoops and cheers as he welcomed the public in halting Italian. Then, at the intermission and the curtain call, there was more enthusiastic applause for the cast as well as for the composer, at 62 still a striking figure with flowing gray locks.

True, one young Englishwoman wondered, "I don't understand why an opera about the French Revolution is being sung in English in Rome." But she quickly added, "You can hear lots of Pink Floyd in it: the children's choir, the bird sounds."

Well, perhaps. Still, if Mr. Waters can draw young audiences to an opera - one far more mainstream than Pink Floyd's quasi-operatic album, "The Wall" - he is already achieving more than most contemporary composers. By his own admission, he leaned on Brahms, Puccini and Prokofiev for inspiration.

The work is written for full orchestra and chorus, and if staged, it would require 12 solo singers. In a Sony Classical recording released in September, the baritone Bryn Terfel, the tenor Paul Groves and the soprano Ying Huang each sang several roles. Here John Relyea and Keel Watson replaced Mr. Terfel, and Mr. Groves and Ms. Huang were joined by five other singers.

How Mr. Waters came to write this opera dates back to the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in 1989, when a friend, the French lyricist Étienne Roda-Gil, showed him a libretto, illustrated with drawings by Mr. Roda-Gil's wife, Nadine. It covered the period from early 1789 to Marie Antoinette's execution in 1793.

"I fell in love with the original manuscript in French," Mr. Waters said in an interview in Paris some weeks before the premiere. "I spoke enough French to get it. I liked the idea embodied in it, that 200 years ago, people sat around and decided not only that the ancien régime had had its day but that people should have rights - but not just the French, people everywhere."

Mr. Waters promptly prepared a short demonstration tape, which, he said, President François Mitterrand of France heard and liked. Then nothing happened, and the project was shelved for almost a decade. Eventually, Mr. Waters and Mr. Roda-Gil resumed work and recorded a section with an orchestra. That won over Sony, which, however, insisted on an English-language version as well as the French one.

What made this project doubly unusual was that Mr. Waters could not read music when he began writing "Ça Ira." In his Pink Floyd days, he composed by singing and improvising with instruments. But here he could count on computer programs that enabled him to write the score. Rick Wentworth, a British musicologist who conducted the Roma Sinfonietta on Thursday, helped him with orchestration.

"So I didn't need to be able to sit down at a piano with a pencil and a piece of manuscript," Mr. Waters said. "I don't sight-read. If you sit me down with a piece for the piano, I can't play it, but I can now tell you what the notes are."

The libretto, which Mr. Waters expanded and adapted to English, inevitably shapes the score, since it imagines the story being recounted and re-enacted in a circus. The Ringmaster provides the principal narrative, and different players, notably Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, either watch events unfold from a box or enter the arena themselves.

But because the libretto is trying to cover so much ground, from the hungry masses and the gluttonous court before Bastille Day to the guillotining of first king, then queen, the narrative imposes a kind of declamatory recitative that leaves little room for soaring arias or even catchy duets and trios. Only occasionally do the chorus and orchestra slow the pace.

And since Mr. Waters and Mr. Roda-Gil, who died last year, both appear consumed by the ideals contested in the Revolution, the opera's characters are more symbolic than real: not least, Marie Marianne, sung here by Ms. Huang, as the personification of the French Republic. So this is an opera without a love story, and as operagoers know, that can be a problem.

The music certainly has echoes of Puccini ("Tosca" is Mr. Waters's favorite opera) and Prokofiev (Mr. Waters said he had had in mind Prokofiev's score for Eisenstein's movie "Ivan the Terrible"). Reviewing the Sony recording in The New York Times, Allan Kozinn said he was reminded of Claude-Michel Schönberg's music for "Les Misérables," and some Italian critics drew a parallel with the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

A full staging of the opera would no doubt add raucous scenes and rich costumes, but images projected onto a large screen above the chorus helped give context to the story here. Some were historical paintings and drawings; others, recent photographs evoking a circus and using actors to depict Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

"We're pretending we're projecting photographs of a production," Mr. Waters said, "a visual representation of my idea of a production."

But for the moment, a staging remains an idea. More likely, Mr. Waters said, are fresh concert versions in other cities. Why did Rome come first? "It was simple," Mr. Waters said. "Flavio Severini, the artistic adviser of the Musica per Roma Foundation, has always been a fan of my work. He wanted to do it. We did the sums, and it worked out."

This interview is posted here purely for archiving purposes, and copyright remains with the originating publication.

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