Another Brick in the Wall Opera saved my summer
Photographs courtesy Philip Groshong/Cincinnati Opera
Once again, it is muggy AF in NYC. Though Labor Day Weekend has passed, the official end of summer isn’t until the Fall Equinox. The holiday weekend brings a sense of finality. I believe no summer should end without a romantic story. I rediscovered an old friend. Wait a hot minute before you make any assumptions because this friend shapeshifted its way through my life, sometimes welcome, sometimes not, but was always there to make me think and note by note, measure by measure, baritone, soprano and chorus this time I witnessed The Wall reimagined as an opera. It’s a complicated relationship that I have with Pink Floyd in general, The Wall specifically because it both gets me and gets to me like no person ever has. I guess that’s my idea of romance.
Every morning, I read bits and pieces of the New York Times. On July 19, the headline: How Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ Saved and Ruined My Life by David Belcher made me look. Belcher had just seen Another Brick in the Wall Opera in Cincinnati and wrote an op-ed piece about what The Wall meant to him as a kid. I had my own experience of listening to it for the first time in sixth grade and being transfixed. Before the age of 22 I had worn out four cassette tapes of The Wall. Am I a Pink Floyd fan? I am not a fan of much, but I do know the album resonated with me as a recently motherless daughter in sixth grade like no other music had.
July 19th was not an unusual morning except I had passed over an anniversary the day before that was both an anniversary and a milestone. When I write it down even more than saying it out loud, it seems like I’m attaching way too much meaning to a date, but July 18th marked the point where I am alive longer without parents than with and I’m not that old.
It was a rough summer leading to that date. Perhaps things that normally seem unimportant become a standard deviation greater than deserved when one is emotionally vulnerable. It seems unclear if I’m a closet introvert or a half-assed wallflower. For sure I lead a robust social life but spend most of my time listening to others and observing and not as much time participating. I guess a long time ago I figured out that being a supportive friend means being a good listener while requiring little in return. This works most of the time except for when it doesn’t, and it fails me twice a year. I become the one in need, which is not the same as needy about six weeks before the anniversary of either of my parent’s deaths. I lose friends. I make questionable decisions because no amount of therapy or anti-depressants can change the fact that I will never be able to pick up a phone (how quaint) and tell either of my parents that my daughter lost her first tooth or can do a triple pirouette en pointe or is almost a senior in college before the age of nineteen or that I live in New York City.
After reading Belcher’s piece twice, I felt my face dampen with tears. Songs from The Wall, well specifically certain lines started to run through my head:
I don’t need no arms around me (untrue)
I don’t need no drugs to calm me (total shit show without anti-depressants)
I have seen the writing on the wall (so true)
Don’t think I need anything at all (I wish)
No, don’t think I need anything at all (yeah, total denial)
All in all it was all just bricks in the wall (yep)
All in all you were all just bricks in the wall (yes, friends, you are all bricks in my wall but I’ll still be there for you because there are 52 weeks in a year and I’m pretty fucking reliable for about 40 of them) [Another Brick in the Wall- Roger Waters]
Sometimes you need a kick in the pants. (Something my father used to say.) I thought, if I don’t go see this (fill in the expletive) thing, I’m going to regret it the rest of my life. Flash forward two minutes and I found a few available tickets the next day. Hold it there, girl. A due diligence check of the Montreal Opera web site showed nothing beyond the month of July in Cincinnati, which would have been fine if say, I didn’t live in Hell’s Kitchen. Here’s how I rationalized my impulsive decision: I recently conducted an unscientific survey of my friends about their alcohol, cigarette and drug spending habits. Let’s say that I’m somewhere between a cheap date and a teetotaler. So, I said (rhymes with duck) it and bought the ticket, made a flight reservation from NY to Cincinnati and decided to prove that I could do the entire trip without staying in a hotel overnight. The plan included pretty much showing up with a camera and a laptop and not much else.
Day of the Show
By 3:30 it was pouring (I had an umbrella but still) and the opera house doors were locked. I had this crazy thought that if I called the box office and explained that I was there in the capacity as an audience member but that I’m an arts journalist that perhaps they might feel sorry for me and let my soggy ass into the building a bit early. About fifteen minutes later I got a call from the Cincinnati Opera publicist, Ashley Tongret,who invited me to come right over. Bonus: Ms. Tongret asked me if I wanted to interview Pierre Dufour, the former executive director of the Montreal Opera and the brainchild behind Another Brick in the Wall Opera. Half an hour later I was sitting at a conference table (dry) with the French Canadian accented Dufour. If I could cast the executive director of an opera company, I would scour the planet looking for Pierre Dufour’s doppelgänger. He possesses charm, confidence and a full head of coiffed yet unfussy silver hair. M. Dufour looks like he was born to wear a suit jacket and a collared shirt and speak in front of a crowd.
A good storyteller has the ability to keep people engaged without making the story all about himself. When I asked Dufour why The Wall, he joked that there’s the ten-hour version of the story and the short version. One day, I want the ten-hour version but for now, here’s the short one: A few years ago, Dufour was asked if he could create any opera he wanted to celebrate the 375th birthday of Montreal what would it be? Without hesitation, he answered, “The Wall.” Dufour is credited for saving the Montreal Opera from imminent financial ruin after taking charge about ten years ago. The caveat? Rodger Water’s had to bless the project and Dufour was nervous about approaching Mr. Waters because “a hard no” would mean the end of the dream.
Of course, Water’s first response was absolutely not because most attempts at rock operas are “total shit.” Waters needed a bit more convincing. Besides, The Wall wasn’t just a favorite album from Dufour’s youth. It resonated on a personal level. Dufour lost his father when he was eight to a snowmobiling accident. For anyone who has lost a parent unexpectedly, there is before and after. Life as known before can never be accessed again. For those of us who lost parents before the internet or answering machines odds are their voices are gone forever. We might remember things they said and how they said them but if we were kids when they died? We probably can’t access their voices. Our brains throw up a wall that is impenetrable to what was once familiar and can never be again. Perhaps it is why the album made so much sense in my sixth-grade brain. It was like the first time someone actually heard me in a year and could scream it, bash a guitar, break things build something to protect himself only to find that all it did was alienate him further. and whenever I needed to feel like someone else understood how even I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling, the album was there for me.
What M. Dufour wanted me to know was that this opera was unlike the movie and unrecognizable from the album. Remember when Waters said, “absolutely not” because “rock operas are shit?” He set some rules. The words couldn’t change. The order of the songs could if it served the story. No rock instruments could be used. Dufour said that all the songs were “lyrically recomposed by Julien Bilodeau” for opera except The Trial, “the most unchanged song,” and he mentioned that “Bring the Boys Back Home was quite similar” to the original album though I re-watched director Alan Parker’s (no relation) 1980 film of The Wall and felt that it was also reminiscent of the movie. If you aren’t familiar, need to jog your memory, or just want to hear some crazy good music, click the links.
The Spitting Incident
Ever feel like you’re the last person to find out what everyone else knows? M.Dufour told me that the first scene of the opera is what drove Waters to write The Wall. At a 1977 concert in Montreal, Rogers became incensed when an audience member was behaving like an audience member. Waters, frustrated by the man’s exuberance for the concert and what he perceived as disrespect spat in the man’s face. Gross. On the plus side, Rogers horrified by his own behavior wrote The Wall. Initially he wanted to have a concert behind a wall but realized that he would have to dig into why he was not handling success and fame gracefully. It is shortsighted to think that this is what someone who wants to be a rock star signed up for. No person, regardless of their talent or belief system should be worshipped. It is why fascism dominates the film and the opera thematically and I would argue that it doesn’t come across on the album. Nothing like an angry group of disenfranchised people who never feel heard. Waters goes from rock god to fascist leader during a nervous breakdown. What the opera does more than the film is bring dimension to the characters by giving them a voice.
The opera world is small, and the Montreal Opera and Cincinnati Opera have a long history of collaboration. Dufour said it was the logical place to first bring the work to the US. In October, Dufour will be announcing tour dates. Check with the opera website next month. If I learned anything from my 18 hours visit to Cincinnati, it included that the locals value art and culture in a way that rivals NYC. I exist in a bubble not a vacuum. I need to pay attention to art outside Manhattan.
After poking around the building, a bit with Chris Milligan, the Managing Director of the Music Hall, I ordered my intermission drink, “Comfortably Numb.” (FYI it kind of tasted pink.) I’m not going to pretend to be an opera critic. I competently navigate my way around a film review. I think there are two types of large stage productions: ones that take me somewhere else, spellbind me in darkness and leave me transformed and others where I think about all the things I have to do like laundry, how far behind I am with my writing and if my daughter took the dog out enough times. Another Brick in the Wall Opera gobbled my attention. The operatic voices of Pink, his mother, wife, father and school master penetrated my brain not unlike the first time I heard it on the floor of my friend’s house on a Saturday afternoon more than thirty years ago. This time instead of Roger Waters voice that vacillates between a deep pain and a lullaby in Mother, Pink sings his lines “Mother do you think they’ll drop the bomb?” and Mother sings hers but up until that night, I mean, I listened to Mother hundreds of times but until I heard it sung by Mother I never really heard,“Of course mama’s gonna help build the wall.” And I was shook.