In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.
Opera hasn't been a profitable business for a long time, but Pierre Dufour is betting $3.2-million that he can make money from an opera version of the most ambitious and successful of narrative rock albums: Pink Floyd's The Wall.
Dufour was executive director of Opéra de Montréal until he stepped aside last year to run a for-profit company set up to produce Another Brick in the Wall: The Opera. The piece that started as a bestselling Pink Floyd album and then became a film and stage spectacle will be reborn on March 11 as a work for opera singers and Brahms-size orchestra.
The timing couldn't be better for an opera about fear of the other and the need to get beyond it. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 gave Pink Floyd's 1979 album new relevance, a new wave of suspicion and division is making its message current again. U.S. President Donald Trump is still promising to wall up his southern border and xenophobic politicians in other countries are becoming ever bolder.
Dufour conceived of the project as something rooted in Montreal, where a rude confrontation with a fan at the Olympic Stadium in 1977 planted the seed for The Wall in Roger Waters's mind. The opera actually begins with what director Dominic Champagne calls "the spitting incident," before spooling back through a semi-autobiographical account of Waters's evolution from traumatized schoolboy to reclusive, domineering rock star.
But Dufour's ambition extends well beyond the first performances by OM, which has licensed the production from his privately funded company. He hopes that other opera companies will also take the show, which he expects will draw hordes of Pink Floyd fans to a venue and an art form with which they may not be so well acquainted.
Composer Julien Bilodeau has tried to smooth the way for them by keeping his score relatively simple. "It's not about going in a new direction musically," he said in an interview. "It's very tonal."
But it's also not an arrangement of the album for opera singers and orchestra. Waters made it clear when he visited Montreal last year to announce the project that he loathed that kind of treatment.
Bilodeau has kept all the songs, but found "doors" within them to expand into material that is both complementary and novel. About half the melodic writing is new, he said. The orchestral arrangements heard on parts of the album will be kept, he said, with some revisions. At two hours including intermission, the opera won't be much longer than the 80-minute double album.
There will be no guitars, drums or keyboards in the pit, no percussion beyond orchestral timpani and no microphones for the singers. Bilodeau said he didn't want anything that might make him appear to be merely mimicking rock or cinema music. Conductor Alain Trudel said there will be a very busy chorus, which could steer the piece toward oratorio, if an open rehearsal episode on Monday was any guide.
Champagne said the piece as staged will be "more of a psychological treatment" than the stage or film versions. He also said that contrary to some expectations, the notoriously controlling Waters had given the creative team a relatively free hand.
"Waters is a much more serene artist than he was," the director said. Compare that with cinema director Alan Parker's mournful reflection on his collaboration with Waters on the 1982 film version, which Parker famously called "one of the most miserable experiences of my creative life."
Bilodeau's vision of the project is endearingly idealistic. Besides its obvious political relevance, he said, the piece could recreate a full-spectrum popular audience for opera, like the one that existed when aristocrats, shopkeepers and illiterate workers crowded the opera houses of 19th-century Paris and Milan.
That analogy overlooks the absence of clear class differences between many opera fans and boomer-era rock fans. And it would be a mistake to imagine that appealing to rock fans through something they know might give them a taste for opera. Orchestras used to think that about their pop programs, until they discovered that the public for orchestral show tunes was never going to show up for a Mahler symphony.
If it's successful in Montreal, Another Brick in the Wall: The Opera will give OM the appearance of a huge outreach effort, however fleeting the effects. In terms of crossing boundaries, it's the sequel to last season's adaptation by American-Australian composer Kevin March of Les feluettes, which attracted many people who cared little about opera but were well-acquainted with Michel Marc Bouchard's landmark 1987 play or the 1996 John Greyson film. It's a bonus that the sequel has come more cheaply, and with less risk for the Opéra de Montréal.
Next season's big outreach project is JFK, an opera by American composer David Little and Alberta-born Royce Vavrek, which premiered at Fort Worth Opera last year. Reviews were middling, and no one accused Little of going in a new direction musically, but the piece should kindle the interest of anyone who can't get enough of the Kennedys and American Camelot.
What's missing in this glittering sequence is a thoroughly Canadian work for the big tent. I'm thinking particularly of Louis Riel by Harry Somers, Mavor Moore and Jacques Languirand. OM declined the chance to co-produce this 1967 opera with the Canadian Opera Company, which will revive the piece later this season in Toronto and Ottawa. Riel has a lot that could attract a broad public in Montreal: a francophone hero, a bilingual libretto (with some Cree), a two-cultures rebellion that rocked Quebec at the time and a jaded perspective on the dirty work of federalism. It's also a souvenir of the charmed Expo year that is now being feted all over town.
Instead, we'll have another iteration of a British rock opera that has circled the globe several times in various formats. OM insists Another Brick in the Wall: The Opera is its gift to Montreal for the city's 375th birthday. An odd kind of present for such a local party.